Insurgent democracy

by John Schwarzmantel

This article has three aims: in the first place it seeks to offer some reflection on the role of political theory, and its relationship to what could simplistically be called events in the real world. Should political theory in the broadest sense be concerned with analysing and interpreting these events, or is it an exercise of a different kind, primarily concerned with the analysis of texts and with developing a specialised language of inquiry into such texts, whether historical or contemporary, that offer generalised reflection on concepts like power and authority, freedom and justice, to name only a few?

To save anyone suffering from suspense, my answer is that to opt for the former view, and to use this, briefly, as a sort of platform to criticise approaches to political theory that take a different approach, and to dismiss them as diversions from what should be the task of political theory. That critical excursus constitutes the second aim of this piece.

The third aim is to try and offer some thoughts on how from the perspective of political theory in general, and democratic theory in particular, we might fruitfully reflect on current democratic strivings throughout the world. I suppose this could be seen as a two-way relationship: do current events suggest that we need a new, or at least a different, kind of democratic theory, that we should revise or update our theoretical view of democracy as a type of political system, or type of society? In that case we are moving from events to theory, modifying the theory in the light of changes in the real world. But equally, the relationship can be seen as going in the opposite direction: can political or democratic theorists use their conceptual apparatus and ideas to illuminate the struggles and conflicts that are going on, and to identify certain problems, certain blockages to the political progress and implications of these events, and offer something of significance that more empirical or narrative accounts cannot offer? Can the honour of political theory be saved in that way? So whether from practice to theory, or from theory to practice, how might (or how should) democratic theory be developed in the light of current events throughout the world?

In an article in the latest issue of New Left Review, called ‘Spring Confronts Summer’, Mike Davis writes that ‘The electrifying protests of 2011 — the on-going Arab Spring, the ‘hot’ Iberian and Hellenic summers, the ‘occupied’ fall in the United States — inevitably have been compared to the anni mirabiles of 1848, 1905, 1968 and 1989’. It is interesting that 1917 does not count for him in this list of miracle years. But he is no doubt right to warn that  ‘As the fates of previous journées révolutionnaires warn us, spring is the shortest of seasons, especially when the communards fight in the name of a ‘different world’ for which they have no real blueprint or even idealised image’. But whatever one may think of those utterances, Davis modestly announces that his speculations are ‘simply a thinking-out-loud about some of the historical specificities of the 2011 events’.

What then should be the concern of political theory? I take inspiration from a paper by the American political theorist Jeffery Isaac, called ‘The Strange Silence of Political Theory’. This article is a kind of lament for the fact that American political theorists paid little attention to the significance of the collapse of Communism in and after 1989, but I think that its arguments are of relevance now. Isaac argues that the lack of theoretical reflection on the collapse of Communism cannot be justified by a reluctance to interpret current events, contrasting this with the willingness of classic political theorists to give judgements on the burning issues of their time, and he says ‘Is it possible to imagine such a posture being assumed by Locke or Paine, Kant or Hegel?’. He criticises what he describes as ‘the discrepancy between passionate engagement in current events that characterised most of the foundational writers of contemporary political theory and the disconnection of contemporary political theorists themselves’. Indeed Isaac waxes lyrical when criticising what he sees as the failure of (American) political theorists to reflect on the ideas and movements that contributed to the collapse of Communism, when he writes that ‘Political theory fiddles while the fire of freedom spreads, and perhaps the world burns’!

Isaac contrasts the willingness of the great political theorists of the past to engage in analysis of the events of their time (for example Kant’s comments on the French Revolution) with the abstraction and self-absorption of contemporary academic political theorists: ‘too many political theorists speak only to themselves, preferring esoteric languages to plain expression, seemingly profound formulations to common sense’, he argues. It also seems to me that the purpose of political theory is to try and illuminate and analyse the events of our time. To go back to Mike Davis’ article, if the year of 2011 was a year which saw a range of diverse movements trying to extend and deepen democracy, then surely it behoves us as political theorists to try and understand the ways in which these movements challenged not just existing structures of power but the ways in which they offered, at least potentially, new understandings of what democracy means. Theory can learn from practice, but democratic practice can perhaps be stimulated by theoretical debate and investigation.

The task of political theory must be to try and make sense of current developments, of revolutionary challenges to the existing order, if indeed that is what we are witnessing in the contemporary world. One may be sceptical of comparisons of 2011 with 1848, 1905, or even with 1968 and 1989, because we may not be convinced that the current wave of democratic activity does qualify as a revolution comparable with the events of those other years.

If the tasks of political theory are then set for it by ongoing struggles in the real world, let me just clear out of the way some of the ways in which political theorists should not seek to go about these tasks. It seems that to see the task of political theory in a defensive or pessimistic mode as being concerned with minimising danger, risk or averting serious harm, is to take too negative a view of the human subject, or agent, and also to underestimate the creative role of ongoing democratic strivings. To discuss liberalism as ‘the liberalism of fear’ is to downplay aspirations to human freedom and to reject a more expansive view of the human condition or at least the potentialities of political action to create a new subject of political action, namely the active demos. This is rather vague, but to see political theory as concerned with minimising harm is to take too restricted and negative a view, since what has been placed on the agenda by recent events are a range of movements which go beyond that, which in the broadest sense are trying to carve out a more active role for the citizen, whether acting in solidarity or seeking to secure basic rights of the citizen denied in practice. Political theory must seek to explore this more expansive view of the political subject, of human beings as ‘political animals’ who can come together in an active and creative way. This view of human beings as active creators seeking to establish what Gramsci called a new ‘collective will’ (voluntà collettiva) is in line with a long tradition of political thought, not just in the Marxist tradition but including thinkers like Rousseau who were concerned with new modes of democratic action. A democratic theory adequate to our time has to take a more positive view of the human subject or agent, and to go beyond this limited and fearful philosophy which seems concerned only to avert danger.

In similar vein, talk of depoliticisation and the forces which split up collective agency is indeed relevant, but that while we do need to be aware of ‘liquid modernity’ and the fragmentation of the formerly more cohesive agencies of radical politics, notably the working class movement, that is only one side of the picture. Mike Davis, to quote him again, writes as follows: ‘Western post-Marxists — living in countries where the absolute or relative size of the manufacturing workforce has shrunk dramatically in the last generation — lazily ruminate on whether or not ‘proletarian agency’ is now obsolete, obliging us to think in terms of ‘multitudes’, horizontal spontaneities, whatever’. Davis invokes ‘Two hundred million Chinese factory workers, miners and construction labourers’ as ‘the most dangerous class on the planet’. We may not necessarily agree with him that talk of the obsolescence of proletarian agency is an example of lazy rumination, but it would suggest that one of the things on which political theorists ought to reflect is the constitution of new forms of political agency and new sources of radical politics. Instead of bandying around concepts like ‘depoliticisation’ we should take a hint from Paul Mason’s recent study, Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere, where he analyses a new collective agency composed of three elements that he defines as ‘enraged students, youth from the urban underclass, and the big battalions of organised labour’ (p. 61). I am not sure if speaking in a university environment one should quote aloud Mason’s claim that ‘At the centre of all the protest movements is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future’, (p. 66), but perhaps more safely one can refer to Mason’s concept of ‘the Jacobin with a laptop’, and his claim that ‘the masses have developed a new collective practice’.

Mason seems to be arguing that through ‘the network’, itself made possible through new technology, there are forms of political practice developing which are very different from those of classical socialist or radical politics. To quote him once more, he argues that the events of 2009-11 ‘are revolts led by fragmented and precarious people’, who ‘have used the very technologies that produced the atomised lifestyle in the first place to produce communities of resistance’ (p. 81). So instead of moaning about depoliticisation, apathy, waning political engagement and so on, we as political theorists should be focusing on new forms of political agency, looking at their social composition and origins, but more theoretically investigating the potentialities and also the limits and weaknesses of these embryonic forms of collective action. Davis, to quote him yet again, argues that if the new social movements are to survive, they have to as he puts it ‘sink deeper roots in mass resistance to the global economic catastrophe’, and that, he argues, presupposes ‘that the current temper for ‘horizontality’ can eventually accommodate enough disciplined ‘verticality’ to debate and enact organising strategies’. Political theorists should reject talk of depoliticisation and instead investigate the problem of political agency in what is perhaps a post-ideological age. Here again there are resources in the history of  political thought, concerning questions of political organisation, horizontality, verticality, oligarchy, spontaneity, which should help us in this task.

The third way not to do political theory is to concentrate exclusively on great figures of political theory from the past and to seek to provide new readings of their work in the hope that this will illuminate our present concerns and debates. We should continue with reading, studying, researching on the history of political thought and of the classical canon, but we should be sceptical that doing that will provide us with the means of understanding present problems, which are distinctively new and which require new frameworks of understanding, which might go beyond those inherited from the classical tradition of political theorising. Take this quote from Marx’s Grundrisse,  and maybe it is not wholly relevant, but when he writes about Greek art, and poses the question, ‘is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Illiad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine?’ we may give our own version of this as along the following lines, ‘Is Aristotle possible, or relevant, with the Internet and Twitter? Is de Tocqueville helpful in understanding new forms of democratic politics which a conservative aristocrat from Normandy could not begin to comprehend?’ Can the classics of the past help us to respond to new problems? I would suggest in all modesty that we have to respond to contemporary problems using new concepts and new frameworks, even though the attempt to develop a new framework can be helped by considering how classical political thinkers tried to do the same for the events of their day. Political theory has to be rooted in concerns of the present, and so we must aspire to be our own Locke, Marx, Rousseau or whatever, trying to conceptualise the problems of our time while being aware of how those great thinkers did the job for their day. Perhaps de Tocqueville is correct when in the introduction to his great work  Democracy in America he states that ‘A new political science is needed for a world itself quite new’. A new political theory is needed for our new contemporary world, to deal with questions with which an earlier age was unacquainted.

So to sum up, (to adopt a phrase of the late Brian Barry) ‘rolling the classics around in our mouths like fine old brandy’ are ways of doing political theory which do not contribute to this end of analysing our contemporary world and, perhaps, in a modest way seeking to improve it, thus realising what Jeffrey Isaac in the above-mentioned article says is the task of political theory, ‘opening ourselves up to the dramatic political experiences of our time and to think for ourselves about them in innovative and serious ways’. Having said all that in rather critical and negative ways, how might we begin to do that with regard to contemporary democratic strivings?

Let us look at a short summary of the book by Miguel Abensour, Democracy against the State, and explain what he means by ‘democracy against the state’ and by his idea of ‘insurgent democracy’. Certainly at first glance it looks as though these two ideas of ‘democracy against the state’ and ‘insurgent democracy’ are fruitful ones and offer a new understanding of democracy. The wave of democratic activity world-wide does seem to be directed ‘against the state’, at least in the sense that whether in Egypt or London or Washington protesters are demanding that the state be made responsive to their demands and (in the case of the Arab Spring) cease to act in a repressive and monolithic way which refuses to treat its citizens as the repositories of sovereignty. On the contrary, the state used to manipulate elections and insulate itself from pressures from below, seeing its role as being in alliance with powerful economic interests (indeed, as I understand it, in Egypt the military state was also one which controlled and dominated vast economic assets and enterprises). So much of the current protests are directed against the state, demanding either that the state loosens its repressive grip or, and this seems to apply to protest movements in established liberal-democratic systems, that the state takes a more distanced stance towards powerful banking and capitalist interests and in that way makes some gestures towards a more egalitarian social and political order. And many of the democratic movements today are examples of ‘insurgent democracy’ in that (as in Syria) they are in a state of insurgency towards the existing order. So at the very least contemporary mass movements do seem to be suggesting a model of democracy which sees the demos — the people — as an active creative subject, acting to secure its rights, and demanding state action to limit the power of banks and other holders of economic power.

We can see that this implies an understanding of democracy which challenges a Schumpeter view that democracy is merely a matter of the masses choosing between competing teams of leaders, and that they have no effective role once that task has been done. So ‘democracy against the state’ and ‘insurgent democracy’ seem on first glance to be suggestive descriptors of what is going on before our very eyes, and also to encapsulate within themselves a normative view of democracy that invests the citizens with a more creative and active role, of living up to their formal title of holders of sovereign power.  But we need to probe these two terms of ‘democracy against the state’ and ‘insurgent democracy’ further.

So, what does Abensour mean by ‘democracy against the state’? His book is in large part an analysis of Marx’s 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State, which has to be distinguished from the better-known (and shorter) document, also dated 1843, called A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction. This latter document is the one where Marx announced the role of the proletariat as, ‘a class which is the dissolution of all classes’. However, the longer critique, sometimes referred to as the Kreuznach critique, after the town where Marx spent the summer of 1843, ‘immersing himself in intensive reading and producing a long and detailed critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, as Avineri says, contains this sentence, which Abensour, if I have understood him correctly, makes the basis of his interpretation. Marx wrote that:

In democracy the state as particular is only particular, and as universal it is really universal; i.e. it is not something determinate set off against other contents. In modern times the French have understood this to mean that the political state disappears in a true democracy. This is correct in the sense that the political state, the constitution, is no longer equivalent to the whole.

These words, as Abensour himself admits, are rather enigmatic and obscure. He himself gives an exposition of what he thinks Marx means by ‘true democracy’ under four headings. They are fruitful for understanding contemporary democratic strivings, and will add my own explications. The first characteristic of ‘true democracy’ is sovereignty of the people, not of the state; in Abensour’s words, ‘By contrast with Hegel, Marx opts for thinking the political realm from the perspective of the sovereignty of the people. The people are the real State’. I take this to mean that the real political dimension is of an active citizen body, where democratic political life is expressed (at least on occasion) in opposition to the state, not meaning the disappearance of the state as in the anarchist vision, but seeing the subject of democracy as, evidently, the demos, the people, if necessarily acting in opposition to the state. This may mean the idea of an active citizen body, of people being willing in principle, when the occasion demands it, of mobilising themselves in joint action and of realising forms of collective activity.

The second characteristic of true democracy is that through political activity human beings realise their full nature as political animals. Abensour seems to be saying that it is not that Marx is opposing society to the state and saying that it is through civil society that we realise our social being, but it is through political activity that we become fully socialised or social beings.  Such political activity in fact seeks to liberate people from the constraints imposed on them by their particular position in civil society. This may sound surprising since we think of Marx as the theorist of class and class conflict, so how are we to make sense of this statement from the 1843 Critique: ‘In his political role, the member of civil society breaks away from his class, his real private position; only then does he come into his own as a human being, only then does his determination as the member of a state, as a social being, appear as his human determination.’ So, in my interpretation, democratic political activity is the means through which we develop our true nature as social beings. Abensour puts it like this: ‘In other words, it is not  because man is an ‘animal socialis’ that he gives himself a constitution; rather, it is by giving himself a constitution — because he is a zoon politikon — that he reveals himself actually to be ‘socialised man’’.

The third characteristic of true democracy in Abensour’s description or analysis is what he calls the ‘democratic self-institution of society following the model of a self-institution of an ongoing self-determination’. This may not be the clearest indication of what is meant, but I take it to mean that democracy means a constant process which is never finished, or in Abensour’s words, again, ‘a unity that must perpetually make and remake itself against the constant threat of heteronomy’s resurgence’, some kind of idea of ‘ongoing self-foundation’, the people as the subject, or active subject of political activity in a process which is never complete.

Finally, Abensour talks about true democracy in terms, as he puts it, of a reduction: the reduction of the political state to be only one element in democratic politics. Abensour writes ‘in true democracy the reduced and limited political state does not persist and persevere any less; it exists’. He seems to be arguing that the state is only one element of a proper democracy, and the reduction he refers to must be one way of preventing the state from dominating all of social and political life, from being an excrescence which paralyses the life of society. So he is arguing that Marx is rejecting the dissolution of the political into the social, because the autonomy of the demos is played out in the realm of the political, which cannot be reduced to the social, to the sphere of civil society and the social classes of civil society. On the other hand, the aim must be to avoid ‘the excrescence of the political realm and the impoverishment of the other realms’, the elevation of the state at the expense of ‘the life in common of human beings, the demands of liberty’ (Abensour’s words again). The dimension of the political finds expression in a range of spheres in which people act in common, and the point is to preserve the ‘fluidity of instituting activity’, or as he says ‘the demos manifests and recognises itself as demos in all realms of human life, while respecting the specificity of each one.’

In more homely language, the project of active or insurgent democracy seems to be one in which the state is ‘cut down to size’. The idea seems to be that political activity is certainly not confined to the sphere of the state, but takes place outside it, indeed against the state, though this is not synonymous with the anarchist perspective of the disappearance of the state. The state is just one element or one sphere among others through which citizens realise their true social nature by cooperating or acting with others. This also involves stepping outside the confines of the roles which we have as members of civil society, so that we do not act in a purely instrumental way to preserve or defend our class or professional interests. It seems that this kind of insurgent or active democracy involves a broader concept of what it is to be human, in which we act in ways which transcend our particular social role. I repeat the somewhat surprising quotation from Marx’s 1843 Critique, that ‘In his political role, the member of civil society breaks away from his class, his real private position; only then does he come into his own as a human being’. I say surprising because it seems to downgrade the role of class conflict, so central of course to classical Marxism and its view of history, and oppose that as a more limited role compared with the role of a citizen in what Marx calls ‘true democracy’.

Abensour says that Marx’s 1843 manuscript and its interpretation of the formula of the French moderns (i.e. the statement that ‘the political state disappears in a true democracy’) has, in Abensour’s words, ‘the important of an anti-statist matrix that persists in the form of a latent dimension in Marx’s oeuvre, always susceptible to rise again and produce new fruit’.

So, if we take these four characteristics of ‘true democracy’, of ‘democracy against the state’, what do we have, and how can it illuminate contemporary events? To recapitulate, the four characteristics are an active role for the demos as the source of sovereignty, the extension of the political to all aspects of social life (the political life as the political will-to-be), the democratic self-institution of society, and finally the reduction (though not the disappearance) of the state to be only one aspect of a democratic society in which people associate as citizens. These are abstract and general ideas, so how can they be given any practical exemplification? Abensour does not help us much. He suggests that the ‘hidden and latent dimension’ of Marx’s writings as exemplified in this 1843 text resurfaces in Marx’s discussion of the Paris Commune of 1871, and he also cites the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 as a practical realisation of the ideas under discussion here: Abensour writes that ‘One of the distinctive traits of this revolution, in fact, (he means the 1956 Hungarian uprising) was to demand a persistence of the political principle — that is, of political power — while practising the “reduction” of the political realm’. This presumably means that the councils of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 represented the upsurge of democracy as the self-institution of society, the direct intervention of the demos, while the reduction of the political realm was the attempt to dismantle the system of one-party rule and the ‘leading rule’ of the party. More generally, he says that ‘Marx brings to light a living power that, since the French Revolution, and in every revolutionary rupture, from Paris 1848 to Budapest 1956, reminds us how emancipation in its multiple flights, in its democratic manifestations, is also directed against the State and also rises inexorably against it.’

There should also be some evaluation of this idea of ‘democracy against the state’, by making the probably banal and obvious point that the kind of democracy envisaged here, as ‘insurgent democracy’, ‘savage democracy’, or ‘democracy against the state’, seems to be something which is evanescent, temporary, or as Sheldon Wolin calls it — ‘fugitive democracy’. Abensour invokes and refers to Claude Lefort and his concept of ‘savage democracy’. The key ideas here seem to be the indeterminacy of democracy, and the insistence that whereas totalitarianism seeks to create a unity, of the idea of the ‘People-as-one’, democratic society in Lefort’s words ‘is instituted as a society without a body, as a society which undermines the representation of an organic totality’. Lefort suggests that democracy is bound up with the idea of an indeterminate public space, and I quote him once more, from Democracy and Political Theory (p. 41). He is here talking of ‘the existence of a public space’, ‘This space, which is always indeterminate, has the virtue of belonging to no one, of being large enough to accommodate only those who recognise one another within it and who give it a meaning, and of allowing the questioning of right to spread’. So for Lefort the crucial aspect of democracy is this public space, in which conflict and social division are seen as legitimate, indeed essential, so that a democratic society has to distance itself from the fantasy of an organic society. If democratic politics then involves the creation and maintenance of such a public space, described by Lefort as ‘a space in which human beings recognise themselves as citizens, in which they situate one another within the limits of a common world’, then how can such a public space be brought into being?

This public space, whether metaphorical or a real one like the demonstrations seen in Tahrir Square, is one of direct public involvement, where the demos or people assert immediately and directly their claim to be the holders of sovereign power. This seems to imply that democracy against the state or whatever one wants to call it (insurgent, savage democracy are the usual synonyms) is realised when the people descend into the street and into the public squares and create almost literally a public space which is a sort of counter-state, or the attempt to set up new forms of political power of a direct kind. This arguably was the case with the examples Abensour gives, of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the workers councils of 1956. It also seems to be true of some of the other comparisons which are made with this past year of 2011. The years 1905 and 1968 were certainly years when the people en masse descended into the street as was clearly evident in 1968, or when as in 1905 with the Soviets, attempts were made to create institutions of direct popular power. But all these examples are of relatively short-lived assertions of the sovereign power of the demos. If democracy is in these terms asserted against the state, then how can it be articulated with permanent institutions of state power? Or is this the wrong question to ask, and is democracy in this strong or ‘insurgent’ sense only to be realised in this temporary upsurges or incursions into the street, after which the people grow tired and retreat home to normal life, leaving politics to go on as before? Or in the Arab Spring does the popular upsurge retreat and leave the constitution making to the professional politicians, or to newly-elected representatives, so that insurgent democracy is just seen as an occasional exceptional set of actions which take place only in very unusual cases? Democracy then would be seen as a ‘state of exception’, not in the Schmittian sense of the term, but in a more prosaic and literal sense, something which happens only on exceptional occasions, and apart from those exceptions the state apparatus and the professionalization of politics goes on its own sweet way.

We seem to be left with the conclusion that insurgent democracy is something that is always potentially present, that it represents the indeterminacy of democracy of which Lefort speaks — we never know how, when or where it will surge up and create this public space in which citizens claim in practice the right to speak to the state, and to each other, and speak to each other in attempts to reconstitute the state. So ‘insurgent democracy’ or ‘democracy against the state’ is a useful term for describing in a positive way current movements of democratic upsurge. It is useful theoretically in that it situates current attempts such as the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement within a larger and longer historical tradition, encapsulating other similar moments like those of the Paris Commune or the 1956 Budapest uprising. So to return to the movement from theory to practice and from practice to theory: the theory (i.e. the conceptualisation of insurgent democracy) can illuminate current practice and situate it in a longer line of democratic strivings. Conversely, the wide range of movements which are, as Mason says, ‘kicking off everywhere’, can force theorists to update their theory, by taking into account new agents of revolutionary or democratic struggle, new methods of struggle (new technologies, the Jacobin with the laptop), and new issues, or perhaps it is old issues in a new guise.

This all adds up to the attempt to exert some degree of control over holders of economic power who seem to escape any serious form of democratic control and accountability. So we are seeing if not exactly new forms of democracy, then upsurges of popular anger and demands for recognition and for effective control, a sort of oppositional democracy that does have parallels with 1905 and 1968. But can this insurgent democracy be anything other than intermittent, oppositional, and exceptional? How could the popular mobilisation which it represents be in a more institutionalised articulation with the state, with the established holders of political power? And in terms of transition to democracy, how can mass mobilisations of an ‘insurgent democracy’ kind establish the framework for a new constitution and a new institutionalised form of democracy? Theorists need to get to work on this question, which represents one of the key questions of our time.

We need to develop political theory in ways which engage the current issues of democratic striving and insurgent democracy, which use some of the classic theorists of the past to help in this task, and which seek to probe some of the problems thrown up by movements of contemporary democracy. The problem which needs further investigation is that of how the limits of insurgent democracy could be extended — is mass political action just limited and negative? How can the agenda of issues raised be turned into an effective agenda of political action? Perhaps a necessary precondition for turning protest or insurgent democracy into something longer-lasting and hence more effective is the need for links between the popular counter-power, or mass participation of the demonstration or insurgent democracy kind, and the institutions of official or established democracy, political parties and representative bodies which employ the professionals of politics. Perhaps it is in the interface between ‘official’ democracy and ‘insurgent’ democracy that lies the most hopeful chance for established democracies to renew themselves and for formerly authoritarian states to listen to popular opinion and to remodel their constitution in genuinely democratic ways.

The practical and theoretical implications of this exercise should occupy us as political theorists concerned with the here and now, as were the great political theorists of the past. Both them and us must explore issues of public space, democratic dialogue, constitution making or reforming, and the practical ways in which this could be achieved, otherwise political theory will continue on its path as a no doubt interesting intellectual exercise,  but one lacking in relevance to the challenges of the present, and missing out on an important opportunity to grab the imagination of those, the agents of democratic politics today, who have an intensely practical interest in seeing some of these problems explored and hopefully resolved.

Note: The text above was used for a talk given to the POLIS Political Theory Research Group at the University of Leeds on 26 April 2012. It is intended to be a rough survey of the significance of current democratic movements and how political theorists might respond to them, and is very much ‘work in progress’.

[Thank you John for this contribution]

The writer is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the Centre for Democratisation Studies, POLIS, University of Leeds, UK.