The difference Democracy does (and does not) make to peoples’ lives


by Jeff Noonan

With unnoticed irony, Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times on Bastille Day, July 14th, 2013, lamented the weeks of protest in Egypt that culminated in the army’s removal of the government of Mohammed Morsi.  Cohen argued that since the street protests overturned the results of a free election, they were undemocratic, even though massively popular.  “When is a coup not a coup?  It seems when tens of millions of Egyptians support it and choose to portray it as part of a continuing revolution that was betrayed by the ousted President, Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.”[1]  Subsequent developments may in fact have borne out Cohen’s argument that the army did stage a coup, but what interests me here is the implicit contrast he establishes between democracy as a stable institutional form (constitutionally limited governments changing places through free election), and popular power expressed through extra-parliamentary means (street demonstrations, workers’ and citizens assemblies and councils, occupations, and so on).  Clearly, to the millions of Egyptians who felt that the Brotherhood had hijacked the revolution and was using its power as the government of the day to constitutionally entrench Islamic rule, the institutionalized form of democracy typical of the West and the only democracy Cohen can understand as legitimate did not make the sort of difference in their lives they hoped that the revolution would make.

This conflict between democracy as constitutionally limited government by parties elected through universal suffrage, and democracy as popular rule expressed through directly democratic assemblies of citizens and workers, is much older than the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution.  Indeed, every revolution since 1789 has continually wrenched open the conflict between stability and popular power, between political rule and control over fundamental social and natural resources, and thus between democracy as a form of government, and democracy as a form of social life.[2]  Between the poles of Schumpeter’s understanding of democracy as competition between parties for election to power on the basis of more or less the same platforms — stability, economic growth, jobs, higher ‘standards of living’– and the directly democratic popular assemblies and workers’ councils typical of revolutionary situations, lies a continuum of mediating positions — democratic egalitarianism, deliberative democracy, (itself spread out along a continuum of liberal  and social democratic forms), cosmopolitan democracy, agonistic democracy, and republican or ‘strong’ democracy often linked to the thought of Hannah Arendt.[3]

While these attempts to explain exactly what the meaning and value of democracy are the creatures of political philosophy, the problems theory addresses are all practical.  Each of the alternatives listed above has been tried, more or less systematically, for greater or lesser periods of time.  I want to add:  and with greater or lesser success.  But here I hesitate, at the most crucial question, because before one can answer it, one would have to know what exactly democracy is supposed to succeed at doing.  Ensure comprehensive representation of social interests for the sake of fairness, or social stability, or legitimacy of law, or all three?  Ensure the self-government of the ‘people’ as a good in itself?  Ensure that collectively required resources are collectively controlled?  On an answer to those questions depends the answer to the question of what democracy means, what its social conditions are, and what institutional form it must take depend.  Is constitutionally limited parliamentary government sufficient?  Do the people retain the right of revolution, as the American Constitution guarantees?  Must parliamentary institutions be supplemented by regular town hall style consultative and deliberative meetings, perhaps nationally or even globally extended by the Internet?  Does it require overthrowing the ruling class and re-appropriating the universally required life-goods they currently control?  Does it require some complex balanced whole composed of partial expressions of all of these elements?


These questions are complex. Singularly and together they define the central problems of political philosophy and social practice since at least the French Revolution, and I will not try to answer them in this essay.  I instead want to ask a more basic question:  what difference does democracy make to the lives of human beings such that they continue to fight and die for it?  Answering this question in a way that sheds concrete light on what the objectives of democratic movements ought to be is best pursued by starting with the opposite question:  what differences have actually existing democracies (those forms that have been socially instituted to greater or lesser extents) not made to the lives of the people who either fought for them directly or inherited the struggles of others as the given form of the society into which they were born?  As will become clear, given the manifold of ways in which all forms of democracy have failed to satisfy the hopes placed in them, it is remarkable that the idea of democracy retains any power at all, much less the extraordinary motivating force that it does.

Still today people in Egypt and Syria are fighting for something they call democracy, activists in Spain call their anti-austerity movement the Movement for Real Democracy, dissidents across China continue to demand liberal-democratization of the state, while Americans demonstrate against the totalitarian powers of the security state spawned by the Cold War and run amok since 9/11.  When we compare the concrete failures with the still potent animating force of the abstract idea, we will spy a thread that analysis can follow, partially historically and partially counter-factually, down to the core difference democracy could make to people’s lives, were it understood as the self-conscious, instituted means of ensuring the universal and comprehensive satisfaction of human life-requirements in ways that are sustainable over the open-ended future of the life of the planet and species.


I.  A colloquial history of democratic disappointments     

Consider the movements noted in the preceding paragraph, add any more that come to mind, and then ask:  if democracy made the difference that those currently struggling for it think it will, why has that difference not yet been made?  To put that point more concretely:  what fundamental social problem has democracy, liberal, deliberative, social, or socialist solved?  The distribution of wealth is unequal, globally and within liberal democratic nation states, and getting worse.[4]  The various peoples’ and soviet republics which legitimated themselves by appeal to the value of substantive equality never achieved it in practice, and, as they matured beyond the moment of revolutionary tumult, deprived workers of even those limited forms of defence they came to enjoy in mature liberal democracies — trade unions and the right to organise labour parties.[5] Democracies have been and still are sexist in their distribution of power and prestige, hetero-normative in their official sexual mores, and racist in their historical development, a history which not even the election of a black President in the United States has overcome.

Democracies have elected fascists, engaged in slave trading, wars of aggression, resource theft on a grand scale, and colonial genocide (what Michael Mann appropriately calls the ‘dark side of democracy’).[6]  Liberal democracy is based upon a formal separation of economic from political power, which allows all adult citizens the vote, but allows the economic forces that determine our ability to live and flourish to be controlled by more or less ungoverned competitive struggles between private capitals each seeking to grow, at the expense of each other, the workers’ who depend upon paid employment for a living, and the entire natural life-support system upon which all living creatures depend.[7]  The most historically significant attempts to abolish that distinction, in the Soviet and Chinese peoples’ republics, ended in a nightmare of state capitalist exploitation and bureaucratic totalitarianism on an epic scale.[8]  If democracy has not solved any of those problems, but has in fact proven, if not the cause, then at least compatible with each, why do people continue to struggle for it?  Perhaps better said, why do they continue to believe that any form of democracy is going to now prove capable of solving their problems, when no historical instantiation of the idea has yet come close?


Is it simply that ‘where there is life there is hope,’ and ‘hope springs eternal?’  Or, if this answer is too naive, is the truth the opposite — that the masses, as Plato argued more than two millennia ago, are endlessly open to seduction by demagogues of various sorts who know that there is no quicker route to tyrannical power than a convincing-sounding promise to empower the masses against a perceived enemy?[9]  Or is it that philosophical insight has not yet penetrated deeply enough into the conceptual complexities of the idea and emerged with a thoroughly consistent and realizable theory of democracy?  Or could it be, as commentators on the Arab Spring like Roger Cohen argue, that people have not yet become sufficiently enlightened and disciplined to act in the responsible and self-restrained manner that democracy requires?  Or could it be that there are simply too many competing and contradictory interests in any society bigger than a small town which make the sort of social solidarity socialist and republican theories of democracy presuppose impossible?  While affirmative answers to all of these questions have been proposed as explanations of democracy’s failure (and all have some truth, relative to the version of democracy to which they are addressed) it is this last question that I want to reflect more deeply upon, as I believe that it offers us the best pathway towards understanding the difference that democracy does and does not make.

Such is the power — or ambiguity, or vacuity — of the idea of democracy that it welcomes widely divergent social movements under its umbrella of legitimacy.  While resonant, perhaps, as a slogan, there is no universal interest expressed by movements calling themselves democratic, but at the best distinct and at worst directly contradictory social interests all seek legitimacy as democratic.  Thus, civil libertarians argue that the security state is anti-democratic, while the bureaucrats staffing the security state’s agencies argue that they are protecting democracy.  Capitalists argue that the free market is essential to democracy, while socialists respond that it generates coercive powers over individual life-conditions and social choices totally at odds with democracy.  Feminists argue that democracy is incompatible with patriarchy and that overcoming patriarchy requires that the personal become political, while classical liberals argue that democracy requires a private sphere as that which the public exercise of political power protects.  Given that such glaringly contradictory social forces all claim to be the authentic voice of democracy, how is anyone to begin to sort true from false democrats in a way that can avoid charges of tendentious political favouritism?


II. The paradox of political democracy

The first step in such a sorting process must be to decide upon a formal definition of democracy to which all competing democratic factions could agree.  One arrives at this formal definition by abstracting from different possible institutional embodiments the political core that distinguishes democracy from other political systems.  That core idea is that in a democracy all affected interests are represented in the institutions that are empowered to make the decisions that affect those interests.  David Beetham defines a system of collective decision-making as democratic “to the extent that it is subject to the control by all members of the relevant association, or all those under its authority, considered as equals.”[10] This principle of democracy does not determine what the range of affected interests is, how they should be represented, or how decisions ought to be made and ratified.  Thus, it cannot be accused of tendentious favouritism, but it does distinguish democratic from non-democratic systems.  Whatever merits they may or may not have, non-democratic systems systematically and permanently exclude from legislative and executive power some group(s) of people because of some purported or real incapacity(ies) on the group(s)’ part to make or meaningfully contribute to responsible decisions affecting the life of the whole.

Hence, we can conclude that whatever else they are, ‘true’ democrats are in favour of forms of institutional power that are maximally inclusive of affected interests.  It does not follow from this claim that all forms of exclusion are antithetical to democracy, only that where some groups whose interests are affected are excluded from exercising power in the institutions that affect them, the exclusion is grounded in non-arbitrary reasons.  Thus, infants are affected by the policies of the hospitals in which they are most often born in liberal-democratic societies, and by government child-welfare laws, but their being excluded from exercising power in these institutions seems non-arbitrary, since they lack the one most basic capacity required of participants in democratic deliberation — the capacity to be articulately aware of and able somehow to communicate the content of one’s interest.

Thus, we have arrived at a formal principle that allows us to sort true from false democrats.  Any true democrat will be in favour of institutional structures which are maximally inclusive of affected interests; false democrats will employ the language of inclusive consideration and representation of interests but in reality will favour policies, principles, and social forces which marginalise, exclude, and subordinate some social groups to a central ruling minority.  A supporter of patriarchy may speak the language of democracy, but, by actively supporting practices and policies that exclude women from participating in public life, he proves his politics to be in contradiction to the principle of democracy.  Thus, the formal understanding of democracy can do some work in distinguishing true from false democrats.  But can it explain what difference even true democracy makes to the value of peoples’ lives?  In order to answer this question, let us construct an example, drawn from real life but abstracted from the real play of unequal political power.  This purifying abstraction is necessary to uncover the limits of true democracy if true democracy is understood only as a means of inclusive representation and participation.


Across North America, natural gas companies have been pushing local communities to allow the extraction of shale gas by a process of hydraulically fracturing (“fracking”) the rock and allowing the gas to flow to the surface.  The practice has proven to be a significant threat to ground water supplies (some communities’ tap-water near well-sites is flammable), but also attractive to residents of relatively poor areas with few job opportunities and declining or stagnant populations.[11]  Wherever fracking is proposed, it ignites intense political controversy between residents who want the work and residents who want to preserve their water supplies, between business interests hoping to derive money-value from the expanded consumer markets that new workers and residents would bring, and environmentalists concerned with preserving habitats and ecosystems, and between gas companies and regulatory agencies.

Let us now imagine the following scenario:  a gas company proposes a new fracking operation in a very poor area, but does not use its economic power to force a decision in its favour. The regional government devises a series of open-ended deliberative sessions in which a panoply of unbiased experts present the cases pro and con.  A second series of deliberative sessions is organized in which non-expert resident opponents meet to make their case to the other side.  A third series then follows in which all concerned citizens meet together in open ended plenum to debate the issues anew, incorporating what they now know from the expert testimony and all the positions opposed to their own. The session goes on as long as it takes to hear everyone, as many times as they feel they need to be heard to make their case clear to all the others.  Everyone argues in terms that are in principles acceptable to others (the basic principle of Habermas’ discourse ethics), no one employs misleading rhetoric, red herrings, or intimidates opponents in any way.[12]  At the end of these three rounds of deliberation, a binding referendum is held.  Advertising is allowed, but all groups who want to advertise have the same budget.  The referendum is held, and the decision — whose legitimacy no one on the losing side disputes — is to allow fracking.  Is this decision democratic?  And if it is democratic, is it the right decision? And if it is not the right decision in spite of being democratic, does that fact call into question the value of democracy, or only the formality of the democratic process at work?

In answer to the first question, the answer must be “yes.” The example is contrived to remove all the undemocratic forces at work in actually existing liberal-democratic societies.  Corporate power, access to unequal resources, misleading rhetoric, none are allowed to sway the vote.  Everyone with an interest is allowed to participate fully and freely, all groups are as well informed as they can be, and there are no artificial deadline constraints placed on the debates.  Voting is free and fair. The situation meets as thoroughly as any could the principle of democracy discussed above.  Thus, the decision is democratic.


Does the fact that the decision is democratic entail that it is the right decision?  This question is more difficult, and requires first of all that the meaning of “right” be clarified. I mean by “right” in this context “in the objective life-interests of the residents of the community as integrally bio-social beings, dependent upon the natural world for their means of life-support and each other and the institutions that structure their lives as means of life-development.” Allow me here to add another element to the story.  Assume for the sake of argument that all of the worst environmental effects of fracking are real, and that the citizens knew about them and believed that they were real before they voted, but felt that the short term jobs were more important that the long term damage to their means of life-support.  To say that the decision is right (in their shared life-interests) seems to be flatly contradicted by the long-term destruction of their water supply, without which they cannot live.  Yet, to say that it is wrong even though completely democratic seems paternalistic.  I would argue that the decision is the wrong decision, because democracy presupposes life, which in turn presupposes access to the natural resources which are means of life.  However, I do not believe that this argument is paternalistic, but rather revelatory of a fundamental problem that arises when democracy is identified with the political form of decision-making in abstraction from the material implications of the decisions made.  This problem has two dimensions.

First, if democracy pays attention only to the form of decision making, it can overlook the role that socially real but impersonal economic forces can play in surreptitiously predetermining decisions in favour of ruling class interests, even if the ruling class does not exploit its unequal financial power to sway the vote.  This limitation has long been understood by Marxists, who have demonstrated the way in which the formal separation of political from economic power in capitalist society attenuates the power of citizens to determine the conditions of their collective life. Since capitalist society depends upon the separation of the majority of people from their universal means of life-maintenance, they become dependent upon wage labour for their survival.  Other things being equal, people will choose policies which ensure their short-term survival, which means that, where systematic alternatives to capitalism are viewed as utopian, people will tend to favour those policies which enable them to find work.  However, this fact also means that people will tend to vote for policies which favour ruling class interests’ in exploiting wage labour for its own profit, and thus policies which are adopted only under the compulsion of dependence upon wage labour for survival.  Although democratic at a political level, decisions such as the one adopted in the example above are still taken under the coercive force of social necessity rooted in private control over universally required life-resources, and thus not fully democratic, if “democratic” refers not only to the form of decision-making, but the material implications of the decision taken.


By “the material implications of the decision taken” I mean the real effects that politically democratic decisions have upon the lives and life-horizons of the people who take them.  It can be the case, as in the example above, that majorities vote for decisions that secure their short-term interests in employment but undermine the long-term interests in sustainable natural life-support systems.  This fact points us to a second problem with political democracy, which is that it cannot avoid the paradox that temporary political majorities can make decisions which threaten the long term life-support capacities of nature, and thus the ability of the people who compose those majorities, as well as future human beings, to survive, develop, and flourish.  Even Marxist critics of the political form of democracy in capitalist society fall victim to this paradox.  For example, David Schweickart, in his otherwise excellent After Capitalism, accepts this paradox as an unsolvable problem for any democratic society, no matter how extensively and intensively the principle of democracy is realized.  He notes that while it would be irrational for citizens of a fully democratic society to choose policies which are ecologically unsustainable, such an outcome cannot be ruled out, because “Economic Democracy is, after all, a democracy — and hence the quality of its ‘general will’ is dependent upon the particular wills of the individual citizens.”[13]

In other words, even if the separation of the majority from the universal means of life-support were overcome and workers controlled production, there is nothing anti-democratic, according to the formal conception of democracy as collective decision-making procedure, about their choosing economic policies which favour unsustainable levels of energy use, material consumption, and waste production.  Presumably, then, the alternative — some sort of limitation on the choices it is materially rational to make, would be undemocratic and paternalisticI do not believe that all such alternatives are undemocratic, but rather that the belief that they must be expresses a conception of democracy that has become alienated from the life-ground of value (the enabling conditions of biological life and social choice) which any political system presupposes.[14]

The problem with political democracy and any socialist critique of political democracy which simply accepts the foregoing paradox as unresolveable is that both are alienated from the life-ground of value.  The socialist critique of the capitalist form of political democracy recognises the way in which competitive market forces can predetermine policies behind the backs of and against the class interests of workers, but so long as it does not ground its alternative explicitly in the universal interests of living things in sustainable life-support systems, it has no solution to the paradox, and accepts it as a risk society must run if it is to remain democratic.


III. Democracy, life-value, and the resolution of the paradox of political democracy

Before proposing a solution to this paradox, let us pause and re-ask the question from which this investigation began:  what is so apparently all-good about democracy that even socialist critics of the damage that capitalism does to life and life-conditions affirm it as more important even than safeguarding the most basic conditions of life?  Is it not the very height of material irrationality for anyone, regardless of the politics they espouse, to argue that some political-social form of decision-making procedure is more valuable than sustainable life-support systems, such that one cannot question the legitimacy of democratic decisions, even when the material implications of those decisions threaten the future of the particular community or even the whole of the species?

Part of the answer to this question is historical.  In most of the world in 2013, no political movement, whether aligned with ruling class interests or in opposition to them, can appear legitimate if it is openly and avowedly undemocratic.  Take Egypt for example.  The Egyptian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian liberals, and Egyptian socialists all claim not only to be democratic, but to be the authentic or real voice of democracy.  In the ferment of revolution, when all long suppressed movements gained some political room to breathe and express themselves, though each spoke for different (if overlapping) constituencies and interests, all nevertheless felt themselves to be the genuine representative of “the interests of the people.”  If anyone of them were to have said explicitly:  we are for the reconstitution of the Egyptian state on a narrow sectarian basis and the subordination of all competing interests to this new exclusive ruling principle, they would have immediately discredited themselves.  So on one level all movements use the language of democracy because at this point in history to not do so would be fatal to the political sustainability of the movement.

If that were all that were at issue then there would be little problem in arguing that where democracy and long term life-interests are at odds, democracy must be rejected in favour of securing the long term life-interests of the members of the community or the species as a whole.  The problem with resolving the paradox in this top-down way is that human life-interests extend beyond the mere preservation of natural life and include certain fundamental requirements of life as socially self-conscious agents, in the absence of which many rational human beings would argue life ceases to be worth living.  Of all of these conditions of social self-conscious agency, none is more important than democracy itself.  Life as the mere object of authoritarian power is intolerable for the most part to human beings because it violates their most valuable general life-capacity — to decide for themselves the goals they will pursue.  Whenever there is the tiniest crack in the edifice of authoritarian power, whether wielded by medieval aristocracies, party apparatchiks, dictators, or bosses, people mobilise one way or the other to overthrow it for the sake of creating the social space they need to articulate their long-suppressed interests and goals.  Hence, to limit democracy from the outside and above for the sake of ensuring the long term conditions of life-maintenance is not only unlikely to mobilise support (for the historical reasons given above), it itself could be argued to be contrary to the life-interests of the human beings in whose universal life-interests it would justify itself.


Hence the attempt to solve the first paradox returns us to the second noted above:  if democracy can prove as self-destructive as non-democratic social systems, it may be necessary to regulate it by externally-imposed, and therefore, undemocratic limitations, not on the form of decision-making but on the content of the decisions made.  Thus, in the case of the fracking example above, if it were decided (by whatever supra-popular regulatory body with the power to do so) that this decision, though democratic, had long-term life-destructive implications, it would be overridden.  Whether or not some such external regulatory body to save society from formally democratic but life-destructive and materially irrational decisions could be legitimated on grounds analogous to liberal constitutions, it is not clear to me, as I alluded above, that such external regulation is the only option.  It may be possible to resolve the second paradox by re-interpreting the meaning of democracy in a way that builds in materially rational decision-making into its principle.  I will sketch the beginnings of such a reinterpretation by way of conclusion.

Beetham’s formal principle of democracy treats it as a decision-making procedure.  Wherever collectively binding decisions must be made, they should be made by all those whose lives will be affected by the outcome.  In practice, however, in contexts where lives seem to depend immediately upon access to labour and consumer markets and only mediately upon access to natural life-support systems (in reversal of what is the case biologically) people tend, as explained in Section Two, to vote in favour of policies that promote capitalist money-value growth, in the hopes of creating employment opportunities.  That is, they tend to think of “life” as “performance in market competition” and not as a set of bio-social activities which require access to the very life-goods threatened by untrammelled market forces.  However, if one thinks of life not as market performance but integral bio-social activity, one will become aware (as the environmental and eco-socialist and eco-feminist movements have become aware) of the total set of conditions that enable choice.  Once this total set of conditions has come into focus, it will become clear to anyone who subscribes to Beetham’s democratic principle (and I have already demonstrated that all true democrats must subscribe to it), that democracy must not only include all affected parties, it must include, in the democratic self-consciousness of those parties, understanding of and commitment to the preservation of the total set of conditions, natural and social, enabling free choice.  “Free choice” here is not synonymous with whatever outcome people deliberating happen to make, but rather, the choices people make when they include the total set of natural and social conditions enabling choice as the life-ground necessary to deliberation as such.


To argue that democracy must preserve and develop rather than degrade and destroy the set of the total conditions of choice is to argue that decisions such as the example constructed in Section Two to frack for natural gas are undemocratic, even if popular, because, as materially irrational and life-incoherent, at odds with that which is required to “ensure consistency with life and life-capital requirements.”[15] Life-capital is the real foundation of all economies as that which sustains biological existence and enables the development of the human capacities that make life good.[16]  The growth of life-capital, not money-capital, by life-coherent means, is the essential foundation of a materially rational, that is, actual and sustainable, democratic society.   To argue that democratic politics must recognize and preserve the natural and life-capital bases of social and individual choice is not to impose external constraints on democracy, as charges of paternalism imply.  The life-ground of value is not an external constraint that undemocratically limits democracy, it is an internal constitutive condition of any form of persistent social life whatsoever.  To ignore the difference between undemocratic external constraints (class rule and money-value underlying but also undermining the life-value of universal suffrage) and internal constitutive conditions of democracy is to ignore the fundamental material fact that political life presupposes life.  That difference is ignored not by true democrats, but by servants of money-value growth as the sole and exclusive good of social life.  For anyone who understands society as it fundamentally is — an organized system of life-protection and life-development — the life-value foundation of democratic deliberation is neither an undemocratic limit upon democracy, nor simply instrumentally essential for its long-term survival, but a necessary basis and the primary value a real democratic society serves.

The human form of the life-ground of value requires real democracy.  Ruling class enemies of equality, self-realization, and democracy generally today speak the language of “free choice.”  However, rather than allowing free choice, they typically employ every manner of persuasion, threat, diversion, and coercion to ensure that people choose policies which return ever more money-value to their private and exclusive control while cumulatively undermining the natural life-support system upon which everyone depends.  Materially rational free choice, by contrast, is not unconstrained by internal constitutive limitations.  Materially rational free choice is free from manipulation by class power, but as rational, respects the general natural and social conditions outside of which life, (and therefore, by extension, choice), is impossible.  Materially rational choices enable further choice by ensuring that the material conditions of life are preserved.


The realization of the goods that life-valuable choices make possible presupposes the satisfaction of life-requirements.  The comprehensive and universal satisfaction of life-requirements depends upon access to the natural resources that maintain life and the social institutions that enable the development of life-capacities in human forms.[17]  Undemocratic forms of social life not only deprive oppressed groups of the resources that they require in order to live healthy lives, they deprive them of access to the social institutions they require access to in order to protest, resist, and overcome this oppression.  The struggle for democracy therefore, has not only been a struggle for the inclusion of voice, but the struggle for the inclusion of voice so that the harms of deprivation oppressed groups suffer can be articulated and overcome.  As a substantive life-value, democracy ensures that life-requirements are comprehensively and universally satisfied for the sake of enabling life-valuable forms of free capacity realization in the lives of each and all.  Since the production and distribution of life-resources affects the interests of everyone, to deprive some demonized group of access to life-resources is incompatible with democratic inclusivity.  At the same time, to choose policies which run down those resources at unsustainable pace is also incompatible with democratic inclusivity, since it will undermine the future of that society.

The human future is not a reified abstraction occupying some space-time ontologically distinct from the present.  On the contrary, it is constantly engendered by the actions existing people take.  If a society actively reproduces itself, it engenders its future in the children born into it, who have, as now-living beings, the same life-interests in policies that will maintain and enable their lives as the adults in whose hands decision making authority is vested.  Full democratic inclusivity of life-interests demands that all affected interests be represented in the deliberations through which law and public policy are decided.  Since existing adults continue to have children, and thus commit themselves to the existence of a future for the species, and the economic decisions they make determine the rate at which resources will be consumed, these decisions affect not only everyone alive now, but everyone who will be brought into being in the unfolding future of the community.  Just as it is contrary to the principle of democracy to assert the equality of people and act so as to deprive subaltern groups of the life-goods they require, so too is it contrary to the principle of democracy to seamlessly bring new life into being and at the same time use resources at unsustainable rates.

Only life-grounded and life-coherent decisions that ensure the universal and comprehensive satisfaction of life-interests in the present at rates which are sustainable over the open-ended future of the species are fully democratic.  To draw that conclusion is not to impose external, paternalistic, undemocratic limits on democracy, but only to remind all true democrats of their real responsibilities as self-governing agents.  The willing assumption of these responsibilities is the most fundamental internal constitutive condition of democracy, deniable in theory and practice only by those false democrats who see in the term nothing but ideological cover for their venality and misanthropy.


End notes:

[1] Roger Cohen, “A Big Step Backwards for Democracy,”  “New York Times International Weekly,” The Toronto Star, Sunday, July 14th, 2013, p. 14.

[2] I examine this historical conflict in more detail than I can enter into here in Jeff Noonan, Democratic Society and Human Needs, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2006.

[3] See Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, (New York: Harper and Row), 1975, pp. 269-284.  Paradigm expressions of the different interpretations of democracy are: Vladimir Lenin, To the Population, Democracy and Dictatorship, and What is Soviet Power? (Moscow:  Progress Publishers), 1967; John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, (Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press), 1999, pp.65-73;  Amy Gutman and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement, (Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press), 1996; James Bohman and William Rehg, eds., Deliberative Democracy,  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 1999;  Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, (Cambridge MA:  MIT Press), 1995;  David Held, Global Covenant, (London:  Polity Press), 2004;  Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, (London:  Verso), 2000; Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” Between Past and Future:  Eight Exercises in Political Thought, (New York:  Penguin Books), 1993, pp. 143-71; Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy:  Participatory Politics for a New Age, 20th Anniversary edition, (Berkeley:  University of California Press), 2004. 

[4] Isable Ortiz, “Global Inequality:  Beyond the Bottom Billion — A Rapid Review of Income Distribution in 141 Countries,”(New York:  UNICEF), 2011.  ( (accessed November 12th, 2013).

[5] Ian H. Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, (London:  Pluto), 1974.

[6] Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press), 2004.

[7] This essential characteristic was first disclosed by Marx.  Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Collected Works: Volume 3, (New York:  International Publishers), 1975, pp. 146-174.  In the contemporary period it has been systematically elaborated by Ellen Meiksins Wood.  Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Separation of the ‘Economic’ and the ‘Political’ in Capitalism,” Democracy Against Capitalism, (New York:  Cambridge University Press), 1995, pp. 19-48.

[8] Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, (London:  Pluto Press), 1974

[9]  Plato, “Republic,”  The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Hamilton and Cairns, eds, (Princeton:  Princeton University Press), 1961, pp. 790-793.

[10] David Beetham, Democracy and Human Rights, (Cambridge:  Polity  Press), 2000, pp. 4-5.

[11] Natural Resources Defence Council, “Risky Gas Drilling Threatens Health, Water Supplies,” ( (accessed, October 8th, 2013).

[12]  Jurgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press), 1990, pp. 86-109.

[13] David Schweickart, After Capitalism, Second Edition, (Latham, MA:  Rowman and Litllefield), 2011, p. 151.

[14] The term “life-ground of value”  derives from the life-value onto-axiology of John McMurtry. For formal definition see John McMurtry, Unequal Freedoms, (Toronto:  Garamond) 1998, p. 23.

[15] John McMurtry, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, New Edition, (London:  Pluto Press), 2013, p. 319.

[16] Ibid., p. 196.

[17] I provide a systematic account of the full range of natural and social life-requirements in Jeff Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life Value, (Montreal:  McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012.


[Thank you indeed Jeff for this important essay]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.  His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012.  More of his work can be found at his website:

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