Category Archives: democracy

Food Sovereignty

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

A democratic claim for self-determination from the world’s largest peasant movement

Banana Stand in Riobamba, Ecuador. By Giulio Caperchi

One of the most important social movements of the past decades has without a doubt been La Via Campesina, a transnational peasant organization representing 200 million farmers from 70 different countries. It campaigns for issues linked to agricultural production such as sustainable food systems, access to natural resources, indigenous and women rights, and access to land (Desmarais 2007). Above all, however, it is the world’s most vehement supporter of the concept of food sovereignty. According to Via Campesina, “food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. It is a principle with which small agricultural producers worldwide attempt to reclaim their productive systems from the monopoly of transnational agribusiness.

Small scale farmers are increasingly disenfranchised by a handful of corporations which dominate virtually all aspects of the food cycle, from production to distribution. If we look at the inputs needed for agricultural production, only six corporations own more than 75 percent of the world’s pesticide market, and only four sell more than half of the world’s seeds. Furthermore, the distribution dimension of agriculture is equally monopolized. For example, only 4 companies process 90% of the global grain trade, and within the US only three companies process 70 percent of all beef (source).

The monopolization of agricultural production is not the only problem faced by small producers. The use of genetically engineered sterile seeds dubbed “terminator seeds”, force farmers to buy seeds from the same companies every single year. The same companies, Monsanto above all, have been accused of making their seeds genetically resistant to their own fertilizers and pesticides. The ecological disasters linked to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers is also a well documented fact: just to cite the example of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of  Mexico, where nitrogen discharge carried by the Mississippi has created a zero-oxygen area of 9,400 square miles which threatens the livelihoods of thousands of small fishermen and  the resilience of marine ecosystems.

Moreover, this status quo is maintained by powerful supranational institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by free trade agreements (FTA) between rich and poor countries. The WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) effectively removes much government oversight from agricultural trade and policy. As such, agribusiness is able to influence agricultural policy worldwide, frequently resulting in heavily subsidized agricultural products from rich countries being “dumped” at below market price on the markets of poor ones (Holt-Giménez 2008, Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The dumping of subsidized and genetically modified US corn into Mexico is a case in point, where Mexican farmers which have ancestrally grown corn for millennia are unable to compete with the flooding of cheap corn accruing from the North American FTA (Pollan 2006).

In this context, food sovereignty is employed as an umbrella concept attempting to reclaim the various domains which have traditionally been under the control of local peasants from the hegemony of corporatist agribusiness (Patel 2009). In fact, there are many different definitions of food sovereignty and a variety of issues which the term embraces. What all definitions share, however, is the fundamental claim that small farmers have the right to define and shape their own productive systems. It is, essentially, a democratic demand for self-determination and a cry for independence.

Perhaps the most important issue at the heart of food sovereignty is the right to subsistence farming. Industrial agriculture increasingly displaces diversified food systems for monocultures, to the point where entire agricultural sectors of countries are devoted to mono-production. If the price of what a country is mono-producing plummets, the livelihoods of the farmers producing it are jeopardized and so is their access to food. Food sovereignty demands that governments stop promoting agricultural policy dependent on monocultures and shift their resources towards the diversification of crops for resilient food systems which do not subordinate the livelihoods of farmers to the vagaries of the free market. As such, food sovereignty attempts to break the dependence of farmers on fluctuating and unpredictable markets thereby securing the basic right of subsistence (Petrini 2009).

Protecting biodiversity is another central issue of food sovereignty. In particular, the protection of seed varieties from the homogenizing effects of GM plant species has become a key struggle of movements such as Via Campesina. Of more importance still, agribusiness is patenting and privatizing the genetic codes of resistant plant varieties which are the product of centuries of patient intercropping by small famers. This amounts to an act of biopiracy. The privatization of the genetic patrimony of domesticated plant species robs farmers of what has been ancestrally a right of every producer: the right to exchange and use seeds freely (Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The concept of food sovereignty demands that local populations should not be forced to buy GM seeds and that they should retain control over what is rightfully theirs, namely, the natural resources and knowledge derived from their ancestral coexistence with local ecosystems (Petrini 2009).

Finally, food sovereignty is also a demand for the right to define what systems of knowledge are best suited for particular contexts. We may term this an epistemological sovereignty. The drives towards “progress” and “modernization”, coupled with the obsessive fixation with “growth” force small farmers worldwide to adopt agro-industrial practices at the expense of their traditional practices of production. This results in a loss of valuable knowledge of food systems which were once sustainable, ecologically sound and extremely resilient (Altieri & Toledo, 2011). Food sovereignty refutes the neoliberal paradigm of growth and its exaggerated faith in the virtues of free markets (Patel 2009). On the contrary, it supports the re-discovery of local knowledges which embrace diversification, biodiversity, sustainability and resilience to risks.

The concept of food sovereignty is therefore one which attempts to reclaim the right to define one’s own livelihood. Supranational institutions, multinationals and markets have erected a system in which small farmers have no say, no vote and no access to the higher levels of decision making. They are therefore dependent on unaccountable organizations for their livelihoods. In this light, food sovereignty exercises the fundamental democratic right of self-determination: the right to define, control and participate in the decisions influencing one’s life. It is a democratic claim which seeks to break the condition of dependence between small farmers on one hand, and market fluctuations and agribusiness on the other. Its central message, however, should not be misinterpreted as a demand for complete autonomy (political or economic), but as one demanding freedom from dependence and the right to exercise local self-determination.

For more comprehensive definitions of food sovereignty please consult the following links:

Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Declaration:

Manifesto on the Future of Food:


Altieri & Toledo, 2011. The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:3, 587-612

Desmairis, A.A. 2007 La Vía Campesina: La globalizzazione e il potere dei contadini. Jaca Book: Milano

Holt-Gimenez, E. 2008 From Food Systems to Food Sovereignty: urgent call to fix a broken system. Food First. Available online @

Patel, R. 2009 Food Sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies, 36:3, 663-607

Petrini, C.  2009. Terra Madre: come non farci mangiare dal cibo. Giunti & Slow Food Editore: Milano

Pollan, M. 2006, The Omnivores Dilemma. Bloomsbury Publishing: London

Windfhur & Jonsén, 2005. Food Sovereignty: towards democracy in the food system. FIAN-International, ITDG Publishing. Available online @


Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Development, Environmentalism, Indigenous, social movements

The Locus of Sovereignty

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

What legitimizes sovereign power in modern liberal democracies?

Perhaps one of the most worrying issues directly linked to the financial meltdown has been the repercussions that the crisis has had on the political stability of once well-off countries. The once reliable and stable finances of European nations now appear dangerously precarious, as the economic downturn coupled with austerity measures renders growth an increasingly distant mirage. Moreover, the market’s loss of confidence in public budget balancing has had disastrous political consequences for all of Europe, with some countries precariously governing through frail coalitions, others resorting to technical guidance, and one (or perhaps more) appears to be on the brink of default.

As the politico-economic turmoil questions the stability of sovereign nations, it has laid bare the well established and growing tendency of subordinating democratic decision making to economic and financial priorities. Increasingly, and alarmingly, we are witnessing how the decisions of national and supranational institutions of an economic type are influencing not only parliamentary politics but also the executive decisions taken by governments. As the priorities of unelected economic institutions override the democratic decision-making of political institutions, the question of where sovereignty resides and is exercised can no longer be ignored.

In democracies, as the social contract theorists taught us, sovereignty is popular: it resides originally in “the people” with its regulatory and coercive powers democratically delegated to representatives which exercise them in people’s stead. This exchange of power is referred to as the social contract, in which the voluntary consent of citizens is absolutely central. However, in modern liberal democracies popular sovereignty has always been an ambiguous and ill-defined concept, frequently overridden particularly when public policy is unduly influenced by unaccountable and distant economic institutions.

A brief look at the past will reveal the origin and the rationale behind the tendency within liberal democratic thought to subordinate popular sovereignty to economic priorities.

According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault, a momentous change began to take place early in the 1700s in the way the concept of sovereignty was understood. For Foucault, the industrial revolution, the emergence of commercial society and the ascent of the classical economic theory of Adam Smith amounted to a paradigmatic shift in which sovereignty began to lose its explicitly political dimension and embraced the economic.

Before this shift, says Foucault, popular sovereignty was understood as a concept with which to juridically separate the spheres that pertained to the citizen and to government respectively. The natural rights theorists had taught us that every individual was born free and equal and that these rights were sacred and could be given up only through voluntary consent. The social contract theorists then explained that a portion of every individual’s natural freedom should be ceded to an established authority in order to live in a political society guided by the rule of law. The political vocabulary of social contracts was thus employed as a legal instrument which established the rights of the citizen and those of government through a united political effort by the people. [1]

For Foucault, this was the age of the Homo Juridicus, the individual which renounced some of his or her natural liberty in order to create political society and legitimate institutions of authority. Homo Juridicus is therefore defined by the renunciation of certain natural rights for explicitly political ends: the collective act of establishing a government founded on the concept of popular sovereignty and legitimized by the will of the people.[2]

Contrarily, however, as commerce increased in the eighteenth century, and as a rising bourgeois class began challenging the power of the aristocracy, the relationship between citizen and government began to change slowly but steadily.

Individuals living in Adam Smith’s commercial society were radically different from individuals living in the political society of social contract theorists such as Rousseau. In a commercial society, continues Foucault, every individual is not part of a greater whole (“the people” for example), but is rather a rational individual distinct and separated from all others. Commercial society is not unified, but is constituted by atomized individuals pursuing their self interest and interacting spontaneously in free markets. The dynamics of exchange and competition between individuals pursuing their self-interest never result in a concerted or homogenous action, but rather balance themselves out thanks to the regulating mechanisms of the invisible hand. Commercial society is therefore self-regulating and does not require the guidance of government. In fact, governments should let commercial society be: government should laissez fair.[3]

Foucault suggests that by the mid 1700s we witness the emergence of Homo Oeconomicus, the individual defined by his or her pursuit of self-interest within the free market. Government’s role thus began to change throughout the 19th and 20th century, increasingly limiting itself to the creation of the conditions (free markets) in which Homo Oeconomicus could pursue, unhindered, his self interest. The virtues of the invisible hand, and the harmony and equilibrium accruing from it effectively removed the need for a sovereign entity to intervene in the public sphere. [4]

“Adam Smith’s political economy, economic liberalism, amounts to a disqualification … of a political reason indexed to the state and its sovereignty.”

Foucault 2008, p284

Foucault’s central point is that, after Adam Smith, what grants legitimacy to government is not the social contract and the popular sovereignty generated therein; rather, a government garners legitimacy when it creates the conditions in which economic freedom and pursuit of self-interest may be exercised unhindered. Sovereign power is legitimized by governmental non-interference in what, we are told, is a self-regulating free-market guided by the invisible hand and informed by the practice of laissez fair.

What Foucault’s reflection highlights, is a fundamental shift in the locus of sovereignty. Sovereignty is no longer established in a founding political and collective act by “We the People”, but rather in the pursuit of self interest by atomized individuals in free markets. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has effectively displaced Rousseau’s social contract; as Homo Juridicus succumbs to Homo Oeconomicus.

Romanticizing about a lost (and fictitious) age when political society was a unified and virtuous whole amounts to a cheap conservative maneuver. What we should reflect on, however, is how far we have actually moved away from the democratic ideals informing the social contract and popular sovereignty. Adam Smith’s economic liberalism, re-proposed and re-deployed by neoliberals throughout the past 30 years, has effectively undermined the legitimacy of democratic institutions by substituting the will and consent of political society with the logics of the free market. Any post-crisis society who would like to think of itself as democratic, should reflect on how far away we have moved from our founding democratic ideals, and begin to imagine ways to re-invent them in the light of the challenges of the twenty-first century.


  • Foucault, M. 2008 The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire, UK

[1] Foucault 2008, p40

[2] Foucault 2008, p275

[3] Foucault 2008, p61

[4] Foucault 2008, p270


Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, liberalism, Michel Foucault, political theory, Social Contract

Participatory Budgeting in the Age of Fiscal Austerity

By Giulio Caperchi

A Crisis of Legitimacy

Following the financial crisis, the ensuing bailouts and the passing of austerity measures, American and European voters increasingly feel alienated by their political representatives. The Tea Party in the US rails against politicians they believe to be incompetent, far removed and corrupt. Similarly, the Occupy and Indignados movements see their elected representatives as catering to the corporate elite, lobbyists and the so-called 1%. A recent Gallup poll (12-2011) reports that the approval rating for the US congress is at an all time low: only 11% of Americans think it is doing a good job while a whopping 86% believe they are performing abysmally[1]

Both our elected representatives and our economic institutions are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Notwithstanding our politicians’ talk of balanced budgets, fiscal responsibility and austerity, most of us -on both sides of the aisle- are angry at how our political system has handled the “great recession” and its aftermath. Many feel betrayed by the so-called experts which head the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and other such financial institutions which for years have glorified the self-regulating virtues of unfettered markets.

This resentment highlights a fundamental flaw in our political systems, namely the lack of democratic control over the economic policies which affect our lives. As our politicians fail to stop Wall Street’s “irrational exuberance” from spilling into Main Street we cannot but ask ourselves: how may we, as citizens, control the excesses of twenty first century capitalism?

Participatory Budgeting

An initial answer is suggested by an increasingly popular idea practiced at the level of local governance. Participatory budgeting is a democratic instrument through which members of a community collectively decide on how to spend part or all of the community’s budget. It was first experimented in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and now occurs in well over a thousand cities worldwide including New York and Chicago[3]. Participatory budgeting allows for ordinary citizens to engage in a deliberative process through which they may propose and debate projects on which to spend public money. In this way, discretionary power over the allocation of public resources is delegated from the elected representatives directly to citizens[4]. It is an instance of direct and participatory democracy through which the citizenry is empowered and rendered responsible for its own fiscal governance.

In most participatory budgeting processes neighborhood and thematic meetings are held monthly, where citizens along with elected officials propose ideas on how to spend public resources. For example, the citizens of the 49th Ward of Chicago decided to spend their $1.3 million budget on projects related to public safety, parks, the environment and transportation[5]. South of the equator, high in the Peruvian Andes the citizens of tiny Condebamba spent their town’s budget on micro-reservoirs for rural irrigation[6]. And still, on the other side of the Atlantic in the Tower Hamlets neighborhood of London, citizens used £2.4 million to improve local public services such as street lighting and education[7].

The positive effects that participatory budgeting engenders are worthy of notice. First of all it ensures transparency: the steps of project formulation, ratification and oversight occur in open and inclusive public assemblies. This reduces instances of corruption and clientelism afflicting local governments in many parts of the world. With transparency comes accountability: citizens know who is responsible for a given public project and who is responsible for its implementation[8].

Another positive effect of participatory budgeting is its ability to restore confidence in governmental institutions. Once citizens experience more control over their elected administration, public institutions are perceived as more trustworthy and accountable thereby garnering increased legitimacy. In fact, there are many cases in which tax revenues increase after participatory budgeting processes are implemented[9].

Above all however, participatory budgeting offers a deliberative space through which to democratize decision making processes. As such it allows for the inclusion of previously marginalized groups in the running of their towns and neighborhoods. Many participatory budgeting processes, particularly in Latin America, have empowered women, children, indigenous groups and the rural poor, thereby breaking negative cultural inertias such as machismo, paternalism and racism[10].

A lesson to be learned

Participatory budgeting is ultimately a democratic instrument which works best at the local level. It requires the active participation of citizens and time for lengthy deliberative assemblies. However, does it not highlight major problems within our national and international governance institutions? The lack of public oversight over financial decisions taken by unaccountable supranational institutions is a major source of contemporary popular discontent. The lack of transparency over incomprehensible financial instruments such as “collateralized debt obligations” and the unfathomable ramifications  of the derivatives market is another undeniable problem. The trends towards unelected technical governments such as Italy’s and Greece’s highlight the same issue: increasingly citizens are losing democratic control and oversight over vital economic and financial decisions.

However small and local, participatory budgeting teaches us that public oversight over fiscal policy is necessary. It restores legitimacy to those institutions which many feel have betrayed their trust as citizens. Participatory budgeting shows us that transparency and accountability are sacrosanct attributes and absolute prerequisites for any functioning democracy. And yet, increasingly we have neither: deals are still being made behind the closed doors of G8 summits.

Participatory budgeting’s fundamental lesson is that when the “experts” guiding our financial institutions -along with the politicians who appointed them- fail, we must ultimately rely on our own capabilities as citizens to set our nations’ priorities straight once more. Its renowned success as a democratizing practice teaches us that, at least locally, citizens are capable of fiscal self-determination. Only increased democratic participation in our economic and political institutions will restore the legitimacy which they dangerously lack today. Continuing on the path our politicians are presently following will increasingly alienate citizens from the political process and drastically reduce confidence in our democratic institutions. And this is a dangerous path indeed.


[3] Participatory Budgeting Project

[4] UN Habitat 2004

[5] Moore 2010

[6] Lindemann & Llambí 2010

[7] Participatory Budgeting Unit UK 2009

[8] Wampler 2000

[9] UN Habitat 2004

[10] Cabannes 2004

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Filed under democracy, Participatory Democracy

“Real Democracy”: Negotiating Difference within Consensus

Caught Between Habermas and Mouffe

From Syntagma Square to Zuccotti Park many protesters claim to be exercising a novel idea of democratic politics, one which breaks away from the worn-out paradigms of representative democracy by presenting itself as genuinely inclusive, direct and participatory. One of the most visible slogans amongst the European Indignados movements is that of “democracia real”, meaning “real democracy”. Similarly, in the US Occupy movements many speak of new kind of democracy called “consensus democracy”[1].

This new type of politics is exercised in the hundreds of open assemblies occurring worldwide in various occupied squares. It is referred to as “real democracy” because decisions are not taken by majority vote but rather through extensive deliberation over decisions which all consent to.

And yet we may ask, what is actually “new” about consensus democracy? And is it bringing any significant contribution to democratic theory? It is useful to compare consensus democracy with other democratic theories which claim to be just as participatory, direct and inclusive. Consensus democracy in fact shares many traits with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “deliberative democracy” and Chantal Mouffe’s theory of “agonistic democracy”. From this brief analysis, we will see that the major challenge faced by these theories is the accommodation of social plurality within the process of achieving a collective consensus.

How does Consensus Decision Making Work?

Consensus decision-making offers a procedure through which participants of an assembly may take decisions collaboratively through deliberation. The decisions taken through this process are not necessarily ones that all individuals support wholeheartedly, but ones that everyone can live with[2]. As such, its goal is the facilitation of a deliberative procedure in which proposals may be reworked so as to accommodate as many interests as possible.

Consensus decision-making is an inclusive, participatory, collaborative, agreement-seeking and cooperative method of deliberation. It therefore attempts to remedy the exclusionary byproducts of majority vote and top-down approaches towards decision making[3]. However, it is not a process limiting itself to the achievement of compromise; rather, it attempts to construct new proposals from the confrontation of different ideas[4].

Participants in the assembly are helped by facilitators, which aid the smooth running of the discussion. An impartial moderator keeps the discussion on track and makes sure that anyone wanting to speak is allowed to do so. Other facilitators keep time and take down the minutes (this guarantees transparency). In order not to interrupt the discussion with applause, jeers or boos, sign language signals are practiced: the waving of open palms (twinkling) expresses consent, the crossing of the arms signifies dissent[5].

Assembly discussions produce proposals which are tested for consent. Participants have four choices when faced with a proposal. Firstly, they may express consent. Secondly, they may stand aside, signaling that they don’t fully support the proposal but that they are not against it. Thirdly, they may raise concerns and ask that it be modified. Lastly, they may block it, thereby effectively vetoing it. If this occurs, the proposal returns to assembly discussion, where it is modified/amended and re-tested for consensus until all consent to it. Blocking a proposal is a serious matter. It means that a participant deeply disagrees with it and that she/he will leave the assembly if it passes[6].

This type of democratic politics has been adopted by the Occupy and Indignados movements as an alternative to the “politics as usual” paradigm which has crippled our democratic institutions. Its leaderless and non-hierarchical mode of organization -which finds its only legitimate voice in the open, egalitarian and transparent popular assembly- provides an alternative to both traditional party-politics as well as vanguard-driven political struggle. Consensus democracy is more than anything a procedure: a process which allows for a more inclusive, direct and participatory exercise of democracy.

Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

In a similar way Jürgen Habermas’s democratic theory aims at creating a type of consensus based on extensive deliberation.  Habermas asserts that there exists a type rationality implicit in the act of communication between individuals. Communicative rationality grants legitimacy to deliberation in virtue of its intelligibility, correctness, sincerity and truth. If two individuals feel that the discussion they are having is characterized by these attributes the outcome of their deliberation will be perceived by both as rational and therefore legitimate[7].

Habermas then develops the concept of the “ideal speech situation”, an ideal space in which perfect and balanced deliberation occurs: where there is full participation, where all are equal, all have a voice, and where there are no asymmetrical power relationships. These conditions allow for the maximization of communicative rationality. If we were to re-model our political institutions on the ideal speech situation the decisions reached through such a process would be endowed with a rational consensus, and thus garner increased legitimacy. Decisions taken through this process are legitimate and enjoy a rational consensus when they are determined by the quality of the better argument rather than power[8].

He is therefore arguing that increased democratic deliberation and participation grant legitimacy to the decision making process . Introducing something akin to the ideal speech situation within our political institutions (and in civil society) would begin to restore the democratic legitimacy which they currently lack[9]. Deliberative democracy therefore attempts to produce a rational consensus between rational participants, achieved through a deliberative procedure which ensures inclusion, participation and communicative equality.

Mouffe and Agonistic Democracy

Chantal Mouffe wholeheartedly rejects the possibility of a consensus reached through the procedures of deliberative democracy. For her, Habermas fails to recognize the true nature of the political, which is not underlined by rationalism but rather by political antagonism. Mouffe believes that society is irreducibly plural, in the sense that there exist a multiplicity of different identities and ideologies which often possess irreconcilable and diametrically opposed positions. The idea that all identities may deliberate on the basis of a shared communicative rationality is therefore implausible. Also, the idea that an unadulterated and unbiased ideal speech situation should serve as a model is unrealistic[10]. Mouffe’s main critique is that Habermas understands of a rational consensus specifically in Eurocentric and liberal terms, a consensus founded primarily on individual rights and the rule of law. This excludes, a priori, individuals and collective identities who do not fully identify with liberal tenets. Such groups are therefore perceived as irrational or premodern (aboriginal peoples or Islamist movements for example) whom often react antagonistically towards impositions of liberal consensus. As such, a rational consensus may perversely exclude difference as it would not allow irrational ideas into the deliberative process[11].

For Mouffe, the future of democratic politics lies in the transformation of antagonistic social conflict into agonistic political confrontation. Instead of absorbing social plurality into a universal liberal-democratic framework we must erect the democratic institutions and discourses which allow for increased political confrontation between different ideas and identities. The sharing of the symbolic spaces and participatory democratic institutions in which to exercise our democratic rights attempts to defuse antagonism by transforming it into “agonistic” confrontation. This implies a confrontation not between enemies but between political adversaries[12]. Mouffe concludes that the “stuff” of democracy is political confrontation. Attempting to reach a final rational consensus spells the death of democracy because it puts an end to political confrontation which is the life-blood of democratic politics[13]. The type of consensus emerging from such a Mouffe’s theory is therefore not a universally shared consensus but one emerging from democratic confrontation:

“This is how I envisage the agonistic struggle, a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus: consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation”[14]

Occupy: deliberative or agonistic?

While Habermas justifies his democratic theory on the possibility of an universal rational consensus, Mouffe founds hers directly on political confrontation. The first seeks the absorption of political confrontation within consensus, the second makes political confrontation its raison d’être. But where does consensus decision-making enter this debate?

Deliberative and consensus democracy share the fact that they both offer a procedure through which to democratize decision making. However the main difference between them is that underlining deliberative democracy is the assumption that all participants share some understanding of what constitutes rationality. Yet, Mouffe has revealed that the understanding of this alleged universal rationality is specifically a liberal one, and hence is capable of excluding individuals whom do not identify with it. Contrarily, consensus decision-making makes no such assumptions. Its primary goal is to create the space and process in which egalitarian deliberation and decision-making between different political identities may occur.

In respect to the accommodation of social plurality, consensus democracy as practiced by the Occupy and Indignados movements is closer to Mouffe’s agonistic democracy. It does not seek to absorb different political identities into a rational consensus but attempts to accommodate difference temporarily precisely through deliberative confrontation. The assemblies in the Occupy movements are very confrontational as their participants hail from disparate political positions on the ideological spectrum, from the liberal to the anarchist. Discussions are both lively and intense. And yet, consensus is more than often reached precisely because they are allowed to confront each other politically and forced to reach temporary collective decisions – which may always be improved and modified in the future. This allows the assemblies to recognize what Mouffe calls the irreducible plurality of the social; they understand that we are all different politically, culturally and socially, and that difference cannot be absorbed by any idea of universal consensus.

Moreover, the ability of any participant to block a proposal forces the assembly to recognize and negotiate with minority views, an issue which most democratic orders systematically ignore and overrule. The consensus reached in the Occupy movements is therefore a contingent one: the product of temporary and negotiated discursive articulations and the child of an open, egalitarian and participatory democratic procedure. And these few facts alone, are truly breaking new ground within the field of political theory.


Habermas, J. 1996, Between Facts and Norms. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK

Hartnett, T. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making [online] Group Facilitation, available at

Mouffe, C. 2000, The Democratic Paradox. Verso:  Essex, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, On The Political. Routledge: Abingdon, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, Articulated Power Relations – Markus Miessen in conversation with Chantal Mouffe [online] available at:

Seeds for Change, 2010 Consensus Decision Making., available at:

Seeds for Change, Making Decisions by Consensus., available at:

[2] Making decisions by consensus

[3] Hartnett, Tim. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making,

[4] Consensus decision Making

[6] Consensus Decision Making, p6

[7] Habermas 1996,  p119

[8] Habermas 1996,  p226

[9] Habermas 1996,  p304

[10] Mouffe 2000, 49

[11] Mouffe 2000, p46

[12] Mouffe 2005, p16

[13] Mouffe 2005, p31

[14] Mouffe interview


Filed under Chantal Mouffe, democracy, Democratic Theory, Habermas, Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements

The Retreat to the State of Nature

The Tea Party’s Denial of the Enlightenment

Taming Leviathan

The economic views embraced by the Tea Party movement understand of big government as the major cause of America’s financial woes. An expansive, gargantuan and leviathan-like state is not only inefficient in delivering public services, but also has no right to decide what is right or wrong for private individuals. “Freedom to choose” said Milton Friedman in the 1960s, while calling for a retreat of the Keynesian welfare state in the name of private sector efficiency and individual freedom. Echoing neo-classical economics, the Tea Party movement calls for limited government and fiscal austerity through the reigning in of public spending particularly in services such as healthcare and education. However, this popular resurgence of neo-liberal ideology should be viewed with a critical eye, particularly because of its fiercely oppositional and almost phobic attitude towards the role government in society. We must ask therefore whether such a staunch and borderline-paranoid perception of government is in some way detrimental to American national unity and to its democratic process.

            The fierce rejection of government, accompanied by a deep suspicion of politics, in fact implies a denial of democratic values and traditions. Brought to its logical extreme, economic libertarianism attempts to remodel social interactions upon individuals inhabiting a state of nature devoid of an intrusive government. This represents a denial of the social contract, a rejection of democratic politics and the refutation of the politics of the enlightenment (with all of its flaws of course).

The Nightwatchman State

            Both libertarian and neo-classical economic theories –which the Tea Party movement broadly seems to subscribe to- believe that government should be limited for two main reasons. Firstly because individuals possess the inalienable right of self-ownership: they own themselves and the fruit of their labor. Government therefore has no right to coercively redistribute what they have acquired through the sweat of their brow. In addition, government has no right to force individuals to do anything which they don’t consent to, for example buying health insurance[1]. The second reason why government should be limited is that government formulates public policy on the basis of what it considers to be the common good. However, as David Hume and J. S. Mill have taught, and as F.A. Hayek has re-iterated, there is no way of discerning what this common good empirically is, as every single individual has a divergent conception of it. Centralized national planning (such as healthcare or education programs) should therefore be resisted[2].

            Without burdensome regulation and heavy taxation, so the theory assumes, private companies and entrepreneurs will be able to deliver efficient services which cater to specific consumer needs. The role of government in society is therefore minimal, as its main concerns become protecting the nation’s borders, protecting citizens and property, providing a just legal framework and enforcing private contracts[3]. There is of course disagreement over the extent to which government should be limited. Hayek and Friedman are critical of a complete laissez fair order; while, in Robert Nozick’s utopia, government should limit itself only to the protection of citizens and the enforcement of contracts, thereby merely acting as a night watchman.

The Retreat to the State of Nature

            Brought to its logical extreme, the doctrine of limited or minimal government implies the remodeling of society upon a world in which political participation and democratic deliberation are replaced by voluntary interactions between individuals in the state of nature. In its most extreme form, economic libertarianism does away with the idea of a community of consenting citizens while retaining solely individual natural rights. Moreover, it implies that the political act of national self-determination could be in some sense morally wrong because it offends the natural liberty of the individual by imposing laws and norms decided through a collective process.

            But what is the state of nature exactly? As employed by the social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it referred to a condition of mankind before it entered civil society and before it erected authority or government: in short, before real society existed. A brief look at three of the most important social contract theorists will help us understand this concept better.

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau the state of nature is a hypothetical thought experiment used to determine mankind’s natural conditions, impulses and behaviors. Humans in the state of nature are neither good nor evil[4]. They live in a primitive world which is scarcely populated, where individuals are isolated from one another and where the only concern is that of self preservation. The impulse of self-preservation is however tempered by our inborn capacity for compassion, so that natural law tells us to “do good to yourself with as little possible harm to others”[5]. Humans become evil and selfish once they enter into society, when they begin to establish relations amongst themselves based on natural inequalities such as strength and intelligence.

            For John Locke, the state of nature is one where god created all humans free and equal. Natural law, which is discoverable by men through the application of their reason, tells individuals that everyone as god’s children possess the right to enjoy their life, liberty and property. “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and Reason, which is that Law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions”[6]. However, in Locke’s state of nature, every man possesses the ability to exact his or her own justice, a condition which leads to the “State of War”. Individuals should therefore alienate this ability to a government established by the consent of the governed and ruled by law.

            Finally, for Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature is one in which every individual is solely concerned with preserving his or her life. The instinct of self –preservation inevitably clashes against that of others in the competition for scarce resources. This leads to the omnium bellum contra omnes: the war of all against all, and “it followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.”[7]. As a result, the life of man in the state of nature is “poore, nasty, brutish and short”[8]. Only a complete surrender of all rights to a powerful sovereign, which will keep all individuals in awe, will allow for a condition of peace. 

The Libertarian State of Nature

            In  Anarchy State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick founds his theory of the minimal state upon Locke’s state of nature, in which humans are born with the inalienable rights to their life, liberty and possessions. More importantly, we are all born with the right of self-ownership: we own ourselves and the fruit of our labor. Mankind in the state of nature is thus in a “state of perfect freedom” [9], a condition which Nozick, as a libertarian, aims to preserve. However, in this state there is no institution which provides for the fair distribution of justice, thus every individual may exact his own justice inevitably leading to the “state of war”. For Locke, men should therefore erect a government to which they all consent, thereby instituting a social contract between citizens and governors based on trust and the rule of law. Nozick, however, does not agree. There is no real need for such a process as something resembling the state may arise out of the state of nature through an “invisible hand explanation”.

            Nozick believes that individuals in the state of nature will spontaneously bond together in “protective associations”. Such voluntary associations would protect their members’ life, liberty and possessions. Eventually, out of the maelstrom of competing protective associations one would muscle out competition and establish itself as the “dominant protective agency” [10]. This dominant protective agency fulfils the basic Weberian role of the state: providing for the monopoly of legitimate force within a territory, which for Nozick, qualifies as a minimal state. This is an “invisible hand explanation” of the emergence of government from the state of nature, as it arises spontaneously without a conscious collective effort[11].

“We have explained how, without anyone having this in mind, the self-interested and rational actions of persons in a Lockean state of nature will lead to single protective agencies dominant over geographical territories; each territory will have either one dominant agency or a number of agencies federally affiliated so as to constitute, in essence, one.” (Nozick 1974, p. 118)

The Invisible Hand vs. the Social Contract

            Nozick’s minimal state therefore emerges directly out of the state of nature and models itself upon natural and spontaneous behavior of individuals interacting in the state of nature. This is in direct contrast with the whole of the social contract tradition upon which the democratic politics of the enlightenment are founded. All three of the social contract theorists we have looked at propose some sort of contract between individuals and a sovereign body with the specific aim of lifting ourselves from the state of nature.

            Thomas Hobbes believed that in order to stop the “war of all against all” we must institute a commonwealth so as to give up our rights to a sovereign which will establish peace and prohibit the private use of force:

“A Common-wealth is said to be instituted, when a Multitude of men do Agree, and Covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever Man, or Assembly of Men, shall be given by the major part , the Right to Present the Person of them all.” (Leviathan, Part II, Chap. XVIII)

For John Locke it is the duty of man towards God to establish a government by consent which protects the natural liberties of individuals through the rule of law:

“And thus that, which begins and actually constitutes Political Society, is nothing but the consent of any number of Freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a Society. And this is that, and only that, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful Government in the World.” (Second Treatise  §99)

Finally, for Rousseau, individuals cannot subsist in the state of nature and are thus required to come together and establish a sovereign body through the social contract:

“This act of association produces a moral and collective body made up of as many members as the assembly has voices, and which receives by the same act its unity, its common self, its life and its will…As for the associates, they collectively assume the name people and individually call themselves Citizens as participants in the sovereign authority, and Subjects as subjected to the laws of the State.” (The Social Contract, Book 1, Chap. 7)

Nozick’s idea of the minimal state does not lift people out of the state of nature, but is aimed specifically at reproducing the conditions of “perfect freedom” found in such a state. Yet, the idea that a government may arise spontaneously through an “invisible hand mechanism” represents a denial of the social contract theory tradition. The establishment of the minimal or “night watchman” state  is bereft of a founding political moment of collective self-determination. This implies a veiled attempt of denying social and national unity, democratic deliberation and citizen participation. It also implies a denial of the categories of the citizen and of government which are the participants of the social contract.

European and American democratic traditions are not perfect. Carole Pateman has revealed a sexual contract hidden within the idea of the social contract, thereby exposing the displacement of the female sex. Similarly, Bikhu Parekh and James Tully have shown how western democratic politics exclude different cultures through the establishment o universal rights[12]. However, the complete denial of democratic politics represented by a libertarian retreat to the state nature is very dangerous. The democratic politics of the enlightenment should be exposed for their colonialist, misogynist and exclusionary characteristics, but they must also be used as a platform on which to construct a broader participatory and more inclusive democratic framework. Let us not deny the social contract. Now, more than ever, we must revive it so as to counter the grave democratic deficit which is crippling our political and economic institutions.


  • Hayek, F.A. 1944. The Road to Serfdom
  • Hobbes, T. 1996. Leviathan, ed. Tuck, R. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Locke, J. 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett, P. Cambridge University Press
  • Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell: Oxford
  • Rousseau, J. 1984. A Discourse on Inequality, Penguin: London
  • Rousseau, J. 1997. “Of The Social Contract” in The Social Contract and other later Political Writings” ed. Gourevitch, V. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Steger, M.B., Roy, R.K. 2010 Neoliberalism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Hayek 1944, p 79

[3] Steger & Roy 2010, p 14

[4] Rousseau 1984, p 98

[5] Rousseau 1984, p 101

[6] Locke, Second Treatise §6

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIV

[8] Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. XIII

[9] Locke, Second Treatise, §4

[10] Nozick 1974, p 17

[11] Nozick 1974, p 18

[12] See Carol Pateman’s Sexual Contract (1988), Bikhu Parekh’s Rethinking Multiculturalism (2002), and James Tully’s Strange Multiplicity (1995)


Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Libertarianism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract, Tea Party, Thomas Hobbes, Uncategorized

Two Concepts of Liberty and Classical Republicanism

Deconstructing a False Dichotomy

Robert Nozick opens the preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia asserting that “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do”[1]. Indeed natural rights are a hallmark of western political philosophy. They assert the individual’s natural freedom and protect his or her private life and property from external threats. As articulated in the seventeenth century by European and American liberals, the discourse of natural rights was employed to limit the power of absolutist monarchies and abolish the hegemony of hereditary aristocracies. In fact they acted as a principle of governmental limitation, attempting to draw a juridical barrier between naturally free citizens and their governments[2].

 Today’s political discourse presents a similar use of natural rights. If we look at the claims emerging from the Tea Party movement and like-minded libertarian circles we notice a similar re-assertion of natural freedom and individual independence from a government which intrudes excessively in the life of private citizens. Publicly funded programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are thus seen as direct assaults on the private sphere that pertains to individuals.

A False Dichotomy

          Such an interpretation of natural rights rests upon an understanding of human liberty defined as the condition of absence from external constraints. In his seminal essay Two Concepts of Liberty (1969), Isaiah Berlin terms this attitude towards freedom as negative liberty, one concerned solely with creating a private sphere of non-interference upon which no other person may intrude: “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men can interfere with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”[3]. On the contrary, positive liberty implies the freedom to participate in the collective decisions influencing the individual’s life. Yet, collective participation in political endeavors, according to Berlin, has historically led to the formation of universal categories such as collective wills, the common good, or enlightened majorities which, in the name of collective well-being, have inevitably trodden upon the sacrosanct natural rights of private individuals. Berlin thus concludes that positive and negative liberty “are not two different interpretations of a single concept, but two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life”[4].

          Similarly, the libertarian right, along with many neo-classical economists such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, eschew an understanding of positive liberty based on increased political participation and concerns for the common good. In their view, true liberty lies in the “freedom to choose” their own personal decisions rather than having them dictated by government. Moreover, political participation and democratic deliberation are not seen as conducive to social harmony or political stability as they most often lead to irresolvable political arguments which strain the already frail bonds uniting society. On the other hand, Milton Friedman asserts that if such decisions were left to the free market, such political strains would not occur: “the wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement”[5]. In fact, F.A. Hayek suggested that democracy is not an end to itself but solely a means to secure personal freedom.

“Democracy is essentially a means, a utilitarian device, for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom.”[6]

          We are thus presented with two apparently irreconcilable understandings of liberty. The negative asserts freedom from external constraints, while the positive a freedom to engage in the political act of decision making. Yet, Isaiah Berlin warns us that political participation in a collective sphere, although potentially a noble endeavor, possesses no internal mechanism of limitation which allows it to check its ability to encroach on private natural rights. In this light, it is self-evident that negative liberty is the sole concept of freedom which ensures that at least our very basic rights are protected. This, however, presents us with a false dichotomy.

The Classical Republican Theory of Liberty

          Positive and negative liberty may coexist, and have coexisted, in many different articulations. A valuable example is the theory of republican liberty outlined by professors Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock. These historians bring to the light a political discourse dating back to ancient Greece and republican Rome concerned with the common good, civic virtue and collective participation in the public sphere. This political theory found its first coherent expression in renaissance Florence, where quattrocento (1400) humanists along with Machiavelli articulated the foundational concepts of  classical republicanism. The republic of Florence from the early 1100s to 1432 had been a self governing and independent polity, vying for territorial and political hegemony with neighboring republics and principalities.

          Skinner and Pocock point out that Florentine political thought conceived of liberty as resting on two mutually dependent assertions: absence from forms of constraint and political participation[7]. Absence from constraint was understood as a the condition of independence from external rule. After all, Florence during the medieval and renaissance periods inhabited a world of warfare, marching armies and endless sieges. The individual liberty of citizens within the republic thus depended on the city’s ability to remain free from neighboring tyrants, popes, princes and monarchs[8]. This condition of independence was however maintained solely through citizen participation. In fact, the citizen was called upon to fulfill two duties: firstly, the running of the city’s administration, and secondly the military defense of the city’s walls[9].

          Such a form of citizen participation was embodied in a principle called civic virtue, or il vivere civile e politico, and demanded that citizens take part in the running of the republic’s endeavors if they wished to remain free[10]. In Florentine political thought, the condition of dependence signaled the loss of autonomy and human agency, eventually causing social decay and moral corruption. Civic virtue was thus a principle of individual and social action, an ethic which enabled citizens to be masters of their own destiny through a concerted and collective effort. As such, renaissance republican thought eschewed the idea of private interests guiding the republic, it was weary of princes, and cultivated a profound suspicion of hereditary aristocracies[11]. The republic’s highest magistracies should therefore be accessible to all qualified citizens, and its electoral system was characterized by frequent elections and short terms[12].

           Pocock and Skinner point out the presence of the theory of republican liberty during the English Civil War, in Revolutionary and Federalist America, all the way into the thought of Adam Smith. Its admonition is clear: the maintenance of negative liberty necessitates a positive effort of political participation. As Quentin Skinner suggests, the lesson that the great minds of the seventeenth century seem to be telling us is that “if we wish to maximise our personal liberty, we must not place our trust in princes; we must instead take charge of the political arena ourselves”[13].


             Recent attempts on behalf of libertarian movements forcing us to choose between individual liberty or political participation in a collective sphere are theoretically and historically erroneous. Accepting negative liberty as the only viable and modern understanding of freedom ignores a rich and varied political tradition on which western democracies have been built on. Moreover, this false dichotomy forces us to choose between the protection of natural rights on one hand, and a potentially collectivist totalitarian politics on the other, thereby nudging us towards the acceptance of a limited and unaccountable democratic system. Contrarily, we must conceive of democratic politics as a system requiring continuous political questioning and debate. Indeed democracy’s lifeblood lies in democratic deliberation which always necessities some degree  of citizen participation and civic virtue (of course not the same as the Florentine republic’s).

          A retreat to an a-political and a-social state of nature -which is what the Tea Party movement at times seems to base its claims on- will not maximize individual liberty but render it vulnerable to, and dependent on, powerful interests –be these governmental or private. If natural rights are not defended through political participation within government there is the serious possibility of losing them. Moreover, natural rights, such those to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, do not exist on different political playing field than the rights to basic healthcare, decent education and a dignified retirement plan. The lesson we derive from the political theories of classical republicanism and early liberalism is that natural rights are inextricably tied to the demands for civil liberties. Natural rights and civil rights are linked because they must both be fought for politically, continuously and within a democratic framework.

           A libertarian re-assertion of negative liberty and individual natural rights will not deliver American and European nations from their financial woes. Nor will the dismantlement of government and its public services. It will solely erode and gnaw away at the frail ties that keep us united as democratic nations, thereby fostering division, political apathy and national disunion. In a moment in which financial markets call into question our nations’ popular sovereignty, we are more than ever in need of a concerted and collective effort to rise to the challenge and defend our cherished liberties that define us as democratic citizens.

[1] Nozick 1974, p ix

[2] Foucault 2008, p 9

[3] Berlin 1969, p 122

[4] Berlin 1969, p 166

[5] Friedman 1962, p 24

[6] Hayek 1944, p 73

[7] Skinner 1998

[8] Pocock 1975, p 201

[9] Skinner 1978, p 76

[10] Pocock 1975, p 56

[11] Pocock 1975, p 94

[12] Viroli 1990

[13] Skinner, 1992


Berlin, I. 1969 “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Foucault, M. 2008, The Birth of Bio Politics. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire

Friedman, M. 1962, Capitalism and Freedom. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago

Hayek, F. A. 1944 The Road to Serfdom, Routledge: Abingdon

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford

Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton

Skinner, Q. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 1992, “On Justice, the Common Good and Liberty” in Mouffe, C. Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Verso: London

Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Viroli, M. 1990. “Machiavelli and the Republican Idea of Politics” in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, liberalism, Libertarianism, Liberty, Machiavelli, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism, Nicolo Machiavelli, political philosophy, political theory, Tea Party

The Liberal Ontos

Subjectivity and Raison D’état in Liberal Democracies

“You either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism …or else you criticise the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality.”

Foucault “What is the Enlightenment?” 1984, p43


In What is the Enlightenment (1984) Michel Foucault refuses what he calls “the blackmail of the Enlightenment”: he refuses to be “for” or “against” it. One of Foucault’s main objects of study was to understand the techniques and disciplines utilized by modern governments and their role in the creation of the modern individual. His aim was to expose the relation between the subject and subjectivity and between power and knowledge. As he saw modernity as the product of the Enlightenment, and as he deeply disagreed with modern governmental disciplinary techniques, Foucault set out to understand how the Enlightenment produced such coercive modern institutions. He sought to do this without condoning the disciplinary techniques of modernity as inevitable products of the Enlightenment, but at the same time without refuting the Enlightenment’s tradition as a whole. Refusing the blackmail of the Enlightenment would require embarking on a “historical ontology of the self”, a genealogy of subjectivity which would reveal the relation between the individual, understood as an autonomous agent, and the state, the governor of subjects through liberal-democratic rationalities.

Nowhere else does Foucault address this problem more concisely than in his lectures on Governmentality. It is here that he discusses the raison d’état of the early liberalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that of modern liberal mass democracies. Foucault’s studies expose the pivotal power relationship between governmental rationalities and individual subjectivity, and traces how this relationship changes from its birth during the Enlightenment to contemporary expressions of neo-liberalism.

What Foucault’s work allows us to address are the political rationalities on which early and modern liberalism rest. This, in turn, enables us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our rights, liberties and democratic agency as free and autonomous citizens. What does it mean to be in liberal democracies? This is the central question of the “historical ontology of ourselves”. Answering it requires exposing one of liberalism’s most explosive tensions: namely, that between its alleged neutrality in regards to conceptions of the “common good” and its imposition of an abstract and universal understanding of the self. Studies in governmentality allow us to clearly see that liberalism is not in fact value-neutral but rests on strong and well founded epistemological and ontological assumptions. Exposing the violence embedded in these assumptions is the main object of this enquiry.

The first part of the essay will analyse Foucault’s understanding of early and modern liberal political rationalities, delving into the differences between the principle of sovereignty as opposed to scientific knowledge. The second part will demonstrate how liberalism has presented itself through history as the ideology based on the tenets of negative liberty and limited government. This will be then contrasted with the particular ontological assumptions liberal government attributes to its democratic citizens. In turn, this will enable us to challenge the symbolic framework with which we come to understand ourselves as free and autonomous agents, thereby exposing the tension between liberalism’s alleged value-neutrality and its imposition of a particular form of subjectivity. I will conclude with a brief discussion of contemporary liberal subjectivity occurring in neo-liberalism.

Liberal Raison D’état

In his lecture Governmentality (1991), Foucault traces a distinctive change regarding social policy in the transition from early to modern liberalism. Early liberalism – that based on theorists such as Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf or Locke – grounded the legitimacy of government on the principle of sovereignty. Eighteenth century liberal political rationality is based on the concepts of popular sovereignty, limited government, the social contract, natural rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the subject over which the government rules has a distinct identity. Early liberal subjectivity conceives of the individual as a rational being who is constituted prior to society: a transcendental self, equal to all others in the eyes of God, with inalienable natural rights and liberties. As such, governing citizens required minimum state intervention and the codification of clear demarcations between the state and civil society as well as between the public and the private. In short, law and its juridical apparatus are the sole legitimate instruments through which the state could govern its subjects (Foucault 1991, p95)

However, Foucault points out that beginning in the eighteenth century the exponential growth of population and the expansion of commerce begin to morph the way government firstly relates to its citizens and secondly comes to conceive of them. As governing over large populations becomes increasingly difficult, scientific knowledge comes to the aid of the state, providing it with averages, statistics, surveys and studies which generalize and calculate virtually every conceivable characteristic of society with the aim of efficientizing and simplifying the art of government. Foucault suggests that this type of knowledge, garnered through the developing fields of the social sciences such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics, eventually came to supplant the rule of law as a more efficient technique of governing. It was not enough to threaten citizens with harsh penalties for breaking the law. Subjects could be made to conform to laws not through deterrent, but by following the suggestions of the social sciences which produced “truths” and “norms”. This expert knowledge pontificated, to citizens and governments alike, how populations should behave “normally”. Therefore norms garnered through authoritative and scientific sources provided statistics, averages and means to which the population would synchronize itself in order firstly to ensure domestic tranquillity and secondly to actually improve itself (Foucault 1980, p105).

Thus, a defining feature of modern liberalism is that it increasingly grounds its legitimacy in socio-scientific knowledge rather than in the juridical apparatus (Ashenden 2010, p62). It does not govern through the limited architecture of “rights and duties of citizens” but rather guides its population towards efficiency and self-improvement, so that citizens may exercise their inalienable freedoms in a disciplined fashion (Dean 1999, p175). The modern liberal subject is now conceived not only as a static bearer of rights and liberties but as someone who conforms to normal and reasonable codes of conduct. The patterns of behaviour he or she is supposed to follow are not derived from transcendental notions such as “the state of nature” or “natural rights”, but from what scientific knowledge has calculated to be normal, healthy, balanced and productive (Foucault 1984, 74).

Foucault asserts that advanced liberal democracies govern their subjects through a “demonic” mix of the early and modern political rationalities of liberalism. Today’s Western governments exercise their power firstly on the legitimacy of the concept of popular sovereignty and secondly through the techniques of disciplines offered by the sciences (Foucault 1980, p106). This is the theoretical context, as presented by Foucault, in which I wanted to place liberalism. Now I would like to analyse how liberalism presents itself as a coherent and unified ideology through time, and how is it that it has come to be the dominant political rationality.

Limited Government

From its earliest inceptions, liberalism presents itself as the theory of limited government. But why limited government? This is because it perceives as dangerous and potentially destructive any notion of the common good which could jeopardize the natural liberties of individuals. Government is limited in the sense that its primary purpose is restricted to the protection of the self-regulating sphere of civil society (Hindess 1996, p67). For example, early liberal theorists saw the wars of religion that had ravished Europe as factions of fanatics engaging in mass slaughter to impose an alleged divine order. The social unrest generated by religious strife destroyed and taxed property, inhibited progress and, more importantly, was bad for business. It is the imposition of a unitary notion of what is “right”, “divine” or “good” which liberalism sees as potentially dangerous and conducive to civil strife. Its emphasis on religious toleration embodies one of its earliest rejections of totalizing world-views and a move towards a neutral position in regards of what is “good”.

This is evident in Hobbes’s criticism of Christianity (directed primarily at the Pope and Scottish Presbyterians alike) in books III and IV of Leviathan, in which he states that religious strife was responsible for civil war and social unrest in the commonwealth. For the sake of stability and the preservation of life, Hobbes concludes that the sovereign should control the sphere of public worship in order to avert sectarian violence waged in the name of spiritual convictions. Privately, anyone could believe what they wished, as Hobbes fully embraced Parliament’s principle of Independency, that is, religious toleration (Tuck 1996, p.xliii). Similarly, Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration describes toleration firstly as a basic Christian value and secondly as an inalienable right (Tully 1993, p.57). But these early liberal theorists were not solely opposed to the imposition of totalizing religious orders but also of political ones. In Hobbes and Republican Liberty (2008) Quentin Skinner gives a detailed description of Hobbes’s rejection of civic-republican as well as classical notions of freedom. Hobbes believed that republican intentions of instituting popular sovereignty on Aristotelian assumptions were just as responsible for civil strife as religious factions were (Skinner 2008, p.75). In the same way, Locke’s Two Treatises are an attack on the illegitimacy of the divine right of kings, as his specific aim was that of delegitimizing authoritarian and absolutist claims to sovereignty (Dunn 1969, p67). Hence the stress on a limited form of government, with the main purpose of averting totalizing claims (be them religious, absolutist or civic republican) which can potentially deprive the inalienable and natural rights of freedom and self-government pertaining to individuals in civil society.

We can therefore see that liberal hallmarks such as representative forms of democracy, checks and balances, bicameralism and the separation of powers are all instituted with the aim of protecting the otherwise self-regulating sphere of civil society from a potentially coercive government. A brief look at James Madison’s Federalist X will reveal a plan for an architecture of government with the specific aim of diffusing the fiery passions of the “tyranny of the majority” and of violent factions (Madison 1987, p125). From Mill, to Berlin, to Rawls, liberalism offers a negative understanding of liberty whose main purpose is that of assuring neutrality and averting the encroachment of any dangerous conception of the common good (positive liberty) which could spiral out of control and into totalitarianism (Berlin 1969, p152). As such, liberalism has emerged victorious in modern history: it has achieved religious toleration, abolished the divine right of kings, survived the nationalisms and totalitarianisms of the First and Second World War and defeated the Soviet Union in the last great ideological duel of the twentieth century. Moreover it has done so by not imposing any apparent form of subjectivity on its citizens: liberalism perceives of individuals as self-determined subjects with inalienable rights and liberties. It rejects any particularised ontological grounding of the individual, limiting itself to the protection of a self-regulating and interest-motivated civil society within which individuals can perceive themselves as they see fit (Burchell 1999, p133).

The “Doubling” of Liberal Ontology

So we must ask now how the previous exposition of liberalism as proposed by Foucault can serve as a basis for a profound critique of the symbolic framework within which liberalism conceives of its subjects and within which citizens perceive of themselves. As I have shown, Foucault asserts that there are two distinct political rationalities working within liberalism: one based on the seventeenth century concept of sovereignty and the other, more modern, on socio-scientific knowledge which provides the government with the necessary expertise (and legitimacy) with which to govern. This in turn engenders a doubling of liberal subjectivity: the individual is simultaneously a bearer of rights and liberties as well as a subject to be studied, disciplined and made to improve him/herself. It is towards a critique of this doubling of liberal subjectivity to which we must turn now.

Liberal subjectivity engendered by the concept of sovereignty conceives of the individual as a rights bearing entity which is constituted prior to society. Most of the social contract theorists perceive the individual as possessing certain a priori characteristics which are not the product of political arrangements or social articulations but which are transcendental values granted by God. James Tully points out that the state of nature is an abstract condition: a “quasi transcendental speech situation” from which we derive an understanding of the self as being free and equal (Tully 1995 p64). Michael Sandel asserts that the Kantian notion of the universal self claims transcendence because it is constituted and imagined prior to the social, economic and political conditions in which an individual is born. “The antecedent unity of the self means that the subject, however heavily conditioned by his surroundings, is always, irreducibly, prior to his values and ends, and never fully constituted by them” (Sandel 1982, p22). This specific ontological articulation allows liberalism to claim a neutral stance. Contrarily, say, to an Aristotelian understanding of the self as the zoon politicon which can fulfil its telos solely through political participation, liberalism refracts the constitution of subjectivity to a higher and universal level of abstraction. In such a way, natural rights are prior to any other value, conception of the good, culture or religion. This allows thinkers such as Rawls (1993, p10) to articulate a theory of political liberalism as based on the priority of the right over the good: a theory which is perfectly compatible with liberalism’s fundamental mandate – limited government.

On the other hand, Foucault shows how liberal subjectivity changes once modern governments begin to act on individuals on the basis of evidence garnered through the social sciences. The conception of the transcendental self which defined early liberalism is now complemented by an understanding of the self as expounded by anthropology, psychology and sociology. These new typologies of knowledge produce what Foucault calls norms. On the basis of empirical evidence, presented in the form of statistics, calculations and percentages, governments formulate policies which enforce correct codes of conduct and particular patterns of behaviour which are deemed to be “normal” (Rose 1989, p6). For example, scientific studies suggesting a healthy diet or daily exercise are examples of norms which point to specific forms of behaviour meant to efficientize, help and improve individuals. As suggested by Rose (1989, p4), this knowledge shapes subjectivity: individuals see the “ideal self” as someone with a healthy diet and which exercises regularly and aspire to achieve that status.

In this sense, scientific knowledge is not an imposition of the government, but is rather a suggestion of a way to improve oneself. We must always bear in mind that liberalism views society as a self-regulating sphere on which it has no right to intrude, let alone dictate what to eat or when to exercise. Norms, therefore play the pivotal role of guiding and channelling the behaviour and interests of individuals in a productive and disciplined fashion. At the same time these codes of behaviour entail the need for the individual to synchronize his or her person to them: hence the link between subjectivity and norms. But how are norms created? Norms are averages. For example, the idea of the “average man” is a norm. It is derived through statistical information which tells us what the average man’s height is, how much he should weigh, how old he is and what kind of income he has. Mitchell Dean (1999, p171) refers to norms as “counter-factual and self referential”: they refer to us, but are pure abstractions. The “average man” does not exist: he is an arithmetic construct and blind calculation of what a man should look and behave like. This is the profound critique to modern liberal ontology which Foucault allows us to make. Therefore, we can see a doubling in the abstraction of the self as present by liberalism: the individual is at once a transcendental being deriving his or her rights from the abstract condition of the state of nature, as well as the product of blind statistics pointing to non-existent stereotypes.

Challenging the Symbolic Framework

Foucault’s work allows us to point out where liberalism is at its most hypocritical. While claiming to be the only ideology capable of ensuring individual autonomy without imposing conceptions of the common good on its society, it also makes very specific assumptions on the nature of the individual, of how civil society behaves, and on the relation between government and population. By exposing the assumptions that liberalism rests on, in its early and modern articulations, we finally see that both natural law and empirically determined norms are firmly grounded in the realm of abstraction and not in alleged objectivity. Far from receding from the realm of the metaphysical, liberalism ascends to a new level of abstraction, manufacturing universals which inform and construct the modern self. It is behind the “neutral” conceptualizations of the self that we find liberalism’s hidden violence: in a globalized world, the vast majority of the population finds it very difficult to conceptualize of the self as being constituted by transcendental rights and having to behave in rational (read Western) ways. The post-modern point worth making here is that individuals all over the world can equally identify themselves in ethnic, nationalistic, gender, religious, class or cultural terms, and not universal liberal ones. The imposition of liberal forms of subjectivity which the west has unleashed on the world (often with the most sincere and benevolent intentions) nonetheless have had devastating consequences: from socio-political marginalization of minorities to “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Not only must we be weary of the imposition of early forms of liberal subjectivity, but we must also be critical of the modern manufacturing of norms. Although it claims neutrality in regards to any conceptions of the good, the production of norms is not a mere exercise of blind scientific calculations, but the creation of statements which suggest the “right” way to behave and think. Ashenden points out that norms work on the normal-abnormal polarity, where “normal” inevitably points to what is “good” and abnormal to what is “bad”. Behind the veil of socio-scientific objectivity norms make profound normative statements (Ashenden 2010, p72). These, in turn, are based on very specific Eurocentric assertions which state that the individual behaves according to his or her interest-motivated choice. Norms are built upon a thoroughly capitalist conception of civil society in which individuals interact and are motivated by rational choice: a sphere which spontaneously regulates itself thanks to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (Burchell 1991, p134). Hence the normative and value-laden charge of norms suggests “right”, “correct” and ultimately “good” patterns of behaviour which are however inextricably enmeshed within western capitalist conceptions of the individual, of society and of government.


Two conclusions follow from our discussion. Firstly, an analysis of Foucault’s understanding of liberal political rationalities and subjectivities enable us to challenge the symbolic framework within which we exercise our freedoms. This is one of the key challenges of our times: instead of hiding behind a “veil of ignorance” and procedures ensuring neutrality, liberalism should bear full responsibility for the exclusions and violence it commits in the name of its very enlightened principles. The West’s problematic approaches to multiculturalism, the troubled relations with the Middle East and a grave democratic deficit are problems which can be traced back to the adoption of a symbolic framework which rests heavily on abstract and universal notions which are faltering in today’s globalized world. It is high time that liberalism recognizes that it too, as much as civic republicans, Marxists or Islamic fundamentalists, is promoting, imposing and exporting a conception of the “common good”. Perhaps the very ideology championing negative liberty should heed the warnings of Isaiah Berlin.

The second conclusion we derive from our argument is that Foucault’s work points towards a new terrain of contestation. This novel battlefield is located within the institutions where norms and socio-scientific knowledge are produced. If, according to Foucault, socio-scientific knowledge informs and sustains our very subjectivity, then such knowledge must be criticised and contested for the sake of the very definition of the self. Moreover, as neo-liberalism increasingly devolves, decentralizes and privatizes norm-creating institutions (think lower and higher education, hospitals, insane asylums, the armed forces, jails) citizens lose the scant democratic control they have on the production of normalising knowledge, thereby forfeiting any participation in the production of ontological discourse and abandoning it to the vagrancies of the fee-market.


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Filed under democracy, Democratic Theory, John Locke, Liberty, Michel Foucault, Negative Liberty, Neo-liberalism, political philosophy, political theory, Thomas Hobbes