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How far should democratic citizenship demand political participation?

Democratic citizenship demands, by definition, some degree of participation: citizens must exercise some power over matters which affect them, but to what degree they should participate is an argument that underlies democratic theory. The question can be tackled from two perspectives: a purely theoretical perspective, which looks at a citizen's place in a democratic society, and an empirical one, which looks at the reality of democratic states and how participation seems to affect the system. Both arguments, in my opinion, make a strong case for meaningful participation in society and therefore in the political system.

From a theoretical perspective, we must first ask what it means to be a citizen in a democratic state. Being a citizen implies first of all that we have basic rights to liberty and welfare. If we expect these rights, then we must strive to ensure we have them, and that nobody tries to take them away from us, or denigrate them in any way. So we have an obligation to protect our right to liberty and welfare, which can only be achieved by participating in the system that has authority over us. If a state is in place that is charged with protecting the rights of its citizens, then it is the obligation of the citizens to ensure that the state fulfills this obligation through necessary corrective measures, which implies participation.

Being a citizen also implies that we are members of a society, and we also have a moral obligation to ensure that the liberty and welfare of other members of society are protected. This can be accepted as a general principle, according to John Rawls, as it is intuitive that "everyone's well-being depends on a scheme of cooperation without which no one could have a satisfactory life", and because any system must guarantee the "equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties" (Rawls, 1972). As with personal obligations, these cooperative obligations will require a degree of participation within the political system.

Participation is therefore a "political imperative" for citizens in democratic states, as it "affirms the fundamental human right of persons to contribute to decisions which affect them" (Reason, 1998). To anarchists, this imperative means that we should participate in every single decision that affects us, so that we may protect our right to autonomy, but such a degree of participation is wholly unrealistic if we are to have time for work, play and sleep. So to some extent we must forgo participation and allow representatives to make decisions on our behalf. But that is not to say that we shouldn't participate in these decisions; a distinction can be drawn between making decisions and participating in them. For example, I might not vote on whether a mobile phone aerial is erected near my house, but I can lobby relevant officials and so influence their decision.

However, our ability to fulfill our obligations entails more than just the power to influence decisions that affect us. As Stephen Lukes points out, power has three dimensions [1]: we have the power to directly influence events that affect us, as the mobile phone aerial illustrates. We can also achieve the power to influence the agenda of issues to be addressed that might affect us, so if politicians weren't concerned with the aerial, we can raise the issue with them, thus altering their agenda. Finally we can influence the frameworks by which the agenda is addressed and understood, so we might bring up new evidence that will change how people perceive the aerial, and even change the decision making process in our favour.

Usually it is only those in charge of a political system who exercise all three dimensions of power, and this creates a dangerous situation by which they can manipulate the system to work in their favour, and manipulate the way that society perceives the system to have them believe their decisions are correct. If this happens, then any participation citizens take part in becomes more or less meaningless, as citizens are not really participating in their best interests. So it is essential that citizens participate in politics to the degree where they not only influence decisions, but influence, where necessary, the political agenda, and understand the agenda and the system from their own judgements.

The alternative, and one that is perhaps in place to some extent in most modern democracies, is a rule by experts (perhaps with the pretense of a participatory democracy that is a status quo reinforced by those who can exercise three dimensional power over society). The argument runs that experts are better qualified and suited to make the right decisions that will most benefit society, and most citizens simply aren't equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to participate intelligently.

However there is no way, in this system, of ensuring that the experts do in fact work in the interests of society, and because they exercise the power to influence our understanding of their decisions and the system, they have the ability to trick society into thinking that they are performing their duties better than society might otherwise think. A political system comprising solely of an elite of experts without any accountability is likely to consolidate power and work in the favour of the elite, as history has repeatedly shown, and is likely to manufacture consent and a perceived general will amongst the public, as has been shown in studies by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky [2].

More significant is the need to exercise our power to influence the political agenda, which would be completely removed if we did no more than obey experts. Elites are conservative by their very nature, preserving the status quo to maintain power, and so any necessary progressive steps will not be taken unless citizens participate and force the steps onto the agenda. Feminism and black emancipation are good examples of this, as they would never have achieved such success without the active participation of those involved in the movements.

Moreover, there is rarely such a thing as a "correct" decision in politics, as most decisions are matters of opinion, with two or more possible outcomes that cannot be resolved with any finality (Schumpeter, 1976). So entrusting one's liberty and welfare to the hands of an expert, without witholding any power over them, is an absurd relinquishment of one's obligations, as well as a renouncement of common sense, for the sake of an easier life.

An easier life is often given as a reason against participation, which brings us into empirical arguments. Many argue that they have enough things to worry about in life, without having to worry about politics, let alone be actively involved in it. But this idea of having no time is patently false, and is a product of a society which is obsessed with the clock. Thanks to Max Weber's protestant ethic, our days revolve around the clock, and we pack in as much work and "quality time" as possible, such that we rarely have any free time left [3]. Having "no time" is simply a product of our society, and so can be rectified by participating more in the way we manage our time [4]. In fact, through personal and political participation we can improve our lives and make them easier, so the call to an "easier life" is merely a result of a lack of meaningful participation in our own lives and in politics.

Perhaps the most damaging empirical criticism of participatory democracy came from Joseph Schumpeter in his work "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy". He contends that active participation in politics ruins the system, because it depends on a few principles which underpin a lot of democratic theory that he believes are false. The most important of these is the notion of a "general will" of the public, first proposed by Rousseau, who suggested that if all of the public's views were taken into account, a few coherent ideas could be discerned, which would be the general will of the public, and which would therefore form the basis of political policy.

Schumpeter, however, disagrees that there is such a thing as a general will, due to the pluralistic nature of society, and that there isn't even a "common good" which will produce the most happiness amongst all society. You could never achieve a general agreement amongst all members of society about what is a good thing to aim for, and then how to achieve it. This is well illustrated by the split between capitalists and socialists, who would have fundamental disagreements on issues like public service expenditure.

Such disagreements are of special concern for Schumpeter, who points out that with many issues, different opinions cannot possibly be resolved. "The result", he argues, "lacks not only rational unity but also rational sanction" (Schumpeter, 1976, p.253. He says that once in the field of politics, "the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance" because he/she doesn't employ the mental skills applied in academia and in the workplace. So to Schumpeter, any attempt at rational debate is not only pointless but also counter-productive. Therefore, he argues, citizens should not actively participate in politics any more than needs be, to ensure coherent and consistent government.

However his conclusion is not the only logical resolution of this problem of individual volition. It could be argued that because of this lack of coherence in society, the representative's policies will be most representative if citizens participate in decisions, making their views known so that the skilled representative can find the closest approximation of the general will that make good, coherent policy. And it is because of this lack of intelligence in political discussion that citizens should participate more so that they can improve their political skills, and learn to apply their workplace and academic skills to political matters. Only through participation, in other words, can the representative process be made to work.

Schumpeter's approach when applied to a democratic system then will involve a fundamental lack of participation, which will not only undermine the representative process, but also the legitimacy of the representatives themselves. For if citizens don't participate, then they are likely to lose interest in the political system. An active Greenpeace supporter is more likely to vote than somebody whose participation in politics goes no further than reading the newspaper. In a democracy like the USA, this has got to the point where only about 50% of the eligible population vote, and so if only 40% of those then vote for the winning candidate (as would be likely in a system with more than two parties, such as any European democracy) then society is being run by people who only represent the views of 20% of society. The legitimacy of such a representative is therefore questionable.

And so only through active participation with representatives and the political system as a whole can we ensure the legitimacy of our representatives, which is fundamental to a democracy. Proper participation also ensures that citizens can exercise the three dimensions of power, so that they can influence decisions, influence the agenda, and ensure that the system is not improperly biased in favour of a particular group. Citizens should exercise these three powers so that they can fulfill their obligation to protect their and society's liberty and welfare, fundamental to citizenship, which will result in what might be called three-dimensional participation.

As Albert Camus wrote in his seminal work The Rebel, citizens should be in a permanent state of rebellion against themselves, against society and against the state. Only through this rebellion can citizens ensure that both themselves, society and the state remain healthy and working in the interests of society and individuals.


[1] Stephen Lukes, Power: A Radical View, 1974, as mentioned in Reason, 1998

[2] Most notably in Manufacturing Consent by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky, and Necessary Illusions by Noam Chomsky

[3] Weber took the work ethic revolving around the clock from the Benedictine monastery, and applied it to the workplace. It has now spread to our whole lives.

[4] In The Hacker Ethic, Pekka Himanen suggests that we can self-organise our time as is the academic tradition, thus releasing the hold of work and the clock


Albert Camus, The Rebel, Penguin Classics, 2000

Andrew Heywood, Political Theory: An Introduction 2nd Edition, Palgrave, 1999

Dudley Knowles, Political Philosophy, Routledge, 2001

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1972, extract from Western Philosophy an Anthology, ed. John Cottingham, 1996

Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy 5th Edition, 1976, Ch. 21

Peter Reason, Political, epistemological, ecological and spiritual dimensions of participation, 1998

This essay is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2003, under the GNU Free Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.