Category Archives: Democratic Theory

Civic Republicans and Arms Rights

In the history of civic republicanism, the right to bear arms was a means to an end. The end being the erection of free political institutions, the establishment of democracy, and above all, the creation of a public sphere independent of the arbitrary will of a monarch in which citizens could deliberate as equals.

J.A.S. Oertel- Pulling Down the Statue of King George III- ca 1859. Credits: Wikipedia

J.A.S. Oertel- Pulling Down the Statue of King George III- ca 1859. Credits: Wikipedia

In this brief essay I seek to shed light on the conceptual history of the right to bear arms. By conceptual history I mean a deep look into the history of the idea of arms rights: how it emerged, why it emerged, and what conceptual justifications were used to establish it. This exercise seeks to problematize the claim that arms rights are an inalienable right which cannot be legally regulated or curtailed (as some gun enthusiasts interpret the Second Amendment) and will reveal that contemporary arguments in their favor have been divorced from their historical development.

The intellectual historians J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner assert that the right to bear arms is one of the founding tenets of the political theory of civic republicanism. Civic (or classical) republicanism is the political theory most closely associated with the republics of Ancient Rome and Renaissance Florence, based on a rudimentary separation of powers, civic virtue, citizen militias and the political participation of an engaged and free citizenry (Skinner 1978, p78). Civic republican ideals eventually went on to inform Oliver Cromwell’s English Commonwealth, as well as the political theory of the American Revolution and much of the politics of the Founding Fathers (Skinner 1998).

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

Florence Coat of Arms. Credits: Connormah, WIkipedia

Citizen participation and civic virtue are the cornerstones of civic republican theory (Pocock 1975, p56). The republics of antiquity were self-governing political orders which required the participation of their citizens in all public endeavors lest the republic fall prey to powerful families, private interests or rival kingdoms and empires (Skinner 1978, p77). Cultivating the civic virtues meant participating actively in the political process as well as taking part in the military endeavors of the republic. Politics was to be entrusted to free citizens and articulated through free institutions, and never to nobles and the aristocracy. Military operations too, said the great Niccolò Machiavelli, were to be entrusted to citizen militias because mercenary armies and their condottieri frequently turned against their own employers and never fought with true valor (Viroli 1990).

As such, political and martial virtues were at the heart of civic republican theories of citizenship. This meant that the condition of being a free citizen required one to be able to fight for the only form of government which could guarantee his freedom: the republic. Pocock asserts that the possession of arms in republican Florence was “the ultima ratio whereby the citizen exposes his life in defense of the state and at the same time ensures that the decision to expose it cannot be taken without him; it is the possession of arms which makes a man a full citizen” (Pocock, p90).

Arms rights and martial virtues, particularly in republican Florence, were thus a means to an end. The ends being the individual’s sacrifice for the common good and the preservation of a free polis: autonomous and self-governing.

Commonwealth gold Unite, 1653. Credits: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc, WIkipedia

Commonwealth gold Unite, 1653. Credits: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc, WIkipedia

Similarly if we take a look at the political vocabulary employed during the Commonwealth of England (1649) and the American Revolution (1776) we find the same civic republican themes presented once again. Here, the civic virtues were called upon to emancipate individuals from the rule of absolute monarchy (Charles I in 1649 and George III in 1776). Theories of citizenship informing the Commonwealth justified rebellion and regicide by asserting the basic Aristotelian assumption that man is a free zoon politicon (a political animal) capable of self-government (Pocock 1985, p67). Similar justifications are used in the American Revolution, claiming that propertied men had a right to their own possessions and should be free from the arbitrary will of tyrants (Skinner 1998). Thus, the condition of personal freedom was possible solely through the institution of a popular government legitimized by the consent of the governed.

In 17th century England and in 18th century America, only the appeal to the sword and musket could ensure the erection and the maintenance of a free government for and by the people. Once again, Pocock suggests that in the political vocabulary of the times “the bearing of arms is the essential medium through which the individual asserts both his social power and his participation in politics as a responsible moral being” (Pocock 1975, p389).

The lesson we derive from the civic republican case for arms rights is that arms were an essential means through which to gain political agency and assert one’s status as free and equal citizen. Arms rights were therefore a historical exigency necessary to institute a public sphere, free and accessible political institutions and equality before the law.

Today, it appears to me that the right to bear arms is understood as a right unto itself, frequently equated with the inalienable rights to life, free speech and property. I think this is historically inaccurate. The founders of our democracies and the original architects of our republican orders did not equate the right to bear arms with some abstract notion of freedom, but rather saw arms and militias as a means through which to institute what they called a free body politick. Moreover, arms rights were part of a theory of citizenship imbued with civic virtue and uncompromisingly committed (unto death!) to the common good of the res publica.

In sum, the right to bear arms is historically part of a greater political struggle to institute a self-governing society informed by active citizenship. Today, contrarily, arms rights seem to signify some metaphysical libertarian notion of private freedom which is divorced from the collective struggle for a democratic society and hysterically suspicious of any notion of government.

Michael Hardt and Tony Negri point out how the ideals of republican theory become corrupt in modernity. They suggest that homo politicus -the civic republican- eventually succumbs to homo proprietarius –the possessive individualist whose egotistic self-interest powers the machinations of capital (Hardt and Negri 2011, p11). Contemporary justifications of arms rights are a perfect example of this type of corruption, successfully grounding the Second Amendment in the Hobbesian paradigm of the bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). Yet, historically speaking, arms rights were put in place to create and defend the public sphere, not to assert private and absolute sovereignty over one’s backyard.

For a similar take on arms rights, please consult the following articles:


  • Hardt, M. and Negri, A. 2011, Commonwealth, Belknapp Press of First Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • Skinner, Q. 1978. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
  • 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


Filed under Arms Rights, Civic Republicanism, Democratic Theory, Libertarianism, Machiavelli, Nicolo Machiavelli, political philosophy, Second Amendment

Towards a New Definition of Liberty

Neo-Roman liberty: beyond positive and negative freedom

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

Delacroix-La liberté guidant le peuple. Credit: Wikipedia

One of the most influential essays in the political tradition of classical liberalism is without a doubt Two Concepts of Liberty (1969) by Sir Isaiah Berlin. In it, the brilliant Berlin presents a positive and a negative understanding of the idea of liberty. These two different conceptualizations of freedom, says the author, have informed the philosophies of influential thinkers as well as the policies of many governments. Even to this day they remain very influential, and are at the core of the ideologies of the left and right respectively.

In this essay I argue that the positive and negative definitions are not exhaustive of the concept of liberty. Moreover, accepting Berlin’s dichotomy is limiting and excludes alternative conceptualizations of a vital concept at the heart of democratic theory. By presenting the research of Professor Quentin Skinner I will propose a different idea of liberty: a novel definition which may greatly contribute to our political discussions. But first let us turn back to Isaiah Berlin.

Put in very generalizing terms, positive liberty involves the right of an individual to participate in the collective decisions which influence his or her life. In positive liberty, government is a natural expression of the popular will to the point where the individual’s interest and the government’s coincide. Negative freedom, contrarily, is manifest when an individual is not constrained by external impediments, particularly from laws imposed on him or her by the political apparatus.

Berlin states that governments which have adopted a positive understanding of freedom have most often exhibited authoritarian tendencies, inevitably sacrificing the individual’s private rights for the good of “the people”. Expressions of positive liberty are Jacobin France and Rousseau’s volonte generale. Berlin concludes that negative liberty is a safer understanding of freedom because, in the end, the natural rights of individuals (those to life and private property chiefly) remain sacrosanct and inviolable.

It is safe to say that within the field of political theory these two understandings are the most commonly accepted definitions of liberty to date. So pervasive are Berlin’s definitions that the ends of the political spectrum still identify with them. The left has generally embraced positive freedom, expressing it through a prominent role of government in the individual’s life. While the right has usually given prominence to free enterprise and free markets, allowing individuals to be free of governmental intervention. An alternative way of thinking about the concept of liberty may help us break this conceptual impasse.

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The Statue of Liberty. Credit: Wikipedia

The intellectual historian Quentin Skinner does not embrace the negative and positive dichotomy. Through a meticulous historical analysis, Skinner recovered a third understanding of liberty referred to as civic republican or neo-roman liberty. This formulation of liberty has roots in ancient Greece, expresses itself in Republican Rome, resurfaces in the Italian renaissance republics of Florence and Venice, forms the ideological backbone of the English Revolution, and influenced the language of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Skinner states that neo-roman liberty does not express freedom through government as the positive articulation has it. Nor does it embrace a negative position whereby the individual is free only if there are no constraints put on him by other actors. Neo-roman liberty is best described as the condition of the absence of dependence, where human agency is not dependent on the will of another individual.

This idea of freedom emerged historically in reaction to absolutist and aristocratic claims to power. Its proponents asked the question: how can I be free if my actions must be sanctioned by an arbitrary higher will? Civic republican freedom exists when an individual is not subject to the power of anyone else. It ceases to exist when an individual finds him or herself in a condition of dependence. An individual need not be directly constrained by another actor: it is the mere possibility of one’s actions depending on the will of someone else that engenders the loss of freedom.

Skinner concedes that neo-roman liberty is indeed a strand of negative liberty. But what distinguishes it from Berlin’s definition is how the condition of dependence is to be avoided. In neo-roman liberty, removing the dependence on greater powers requires massive doses of participation in civic life. Maintaining liberty from powerful interests –be them governments or private agents- is to constantly check, balance, control and limit their influence through participation in the political process. For Skinner, the lesson that the civic republicans teach 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”[1].

Positive liberty tends to place too much trust in the guidance of governments. Negative liberty lends itself to ideologies based on the infallibility of free markets. Neo-roman liberty, contrarily, does not trust either. The ancient Romans, the English Revolutionaries and the American Founding Fathers all new that power corrupts -be it public or private. Their answer, however, was not to retreat to a negative conception of liberty limiting itself solely to the obsessive guardianship of liberal natural rights (as Berlin might seem to suggest). They knew that power must be controlled through political means. They knew that popular participation in the political process was absolutely central to balance the influence of powerful interests.

What conditions of dependence are we in today? Well, for one, our whole economic system seems to be inextricably tied to the fate of unaccountable and far-removed financial institutions such as the Fed, investment banks, the WTO, credit rating agencies, the IMF, and the European Central Bank. If Wall Street fares well, all is good (or so says the trickle-down theory). If Wall Street has a bad day, or worse, experiences a financial meltdown, our economy plummets. This, dear reader, is thralldom. And the only way to reverse this condition of dependence, as the civic republicans taught us, is to subject those powerful interests to democratic control, making them accountable to citizens and forcing their decisions to be taken in the public sphere in an open and transparent fashion. The same can be said for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which allows powerful private interests to unduly influence the democratic process. It puts the citizen in a condition of dependence vis-à-vis those interests. The examples are endless.

Neo-roman liberty is grounded in a profound suspicion of all power and in the wisdom that powerful interests must be always made accountable to the public at large. Above all, it teaches us that if we wish to maintain our liberty we must take charge of the political arena ourselves, as free and equal citizens.

For more information on the subject consult the following:

  • Berlin, I. 1969 “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton University Press: Princeton
  • Skinner, Q. 1998, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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


Filed under Democratic Theory, liberalism, Liberty, political philosophy, political theory

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

Conceptual Innovations in Latin American Indigenous Movements

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

What can new political concepts advanced by indigenous movements teach the Western tradition of democratic theory?

As the undeliverable promises of social democracy gave way to the irrational exuberance of the neoliberal consensus, western liberal democracies today are struggling to present a new paradigm of governance capable of facing the challenges of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the BRIC countries continue to grow (in both geo-political and economic influence) thanks to a recipe of state-led capitalism and, in some cases, outright authoritarianism.  In this context, the West finds itself at an apparent impasse: how can it preserve the democratic values and freedoms which it purports to represent while remaining globally competitive?

Unsurprisingly, western democracies have increasingly traded in their cherished democratic values for security and economic growth. The primacy accorded to the War on Terror and to budget-deficit reduction through austerity measures bears testament to this. Of particular concern, however, is how this chronic state of emergency has stifled innovation in democratic thought within the West, impeding new ideas and concepts from presenting interesting alternatives to an unsustainable status quo. With the notable exception of the Occupy movements, there appears to be a dangerous lack of interest in how to re-articulate democracy in the light of twenty-first century challenges.

Not the same can be said for Latin America however. In fact, the indigenous struggles of countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador have expanded democratic thought in innovative and interesting directions. Throughout the past decade, these struggles have radically changed the political panorama of the region, forcing governments to listen to the demands of some of the most neglected and excluded people in the world.

Although the demands of indigenous movements have not yet crystallized into tangible social change for their countries, within the field of political theory they have brought notable conceptual innovation. Three important ideas have been produced by indigenous political thought which simultaneously demand a break with -and imply an expansion of- the Western tradition of democratic theory.

The first concept is called “El Buen Vivir”, or “Good Living”. This idea, which in Quechua language is referred to as Sumak Kawsay, is understood as an alternative paradigm of development. For indigenous movements, both the Marxist and neoliberal governments of the past have depended on the callous exploitation of natural resources to fuel their projects of modernization. Large-scale mining in the high Andes and oil drilling in the Amazon are but two examples of how “modernization” and “development” have degraded the ancestral homelands  and destroyed the livelihoods of communities which previously lived in relative harmony with their natural surroundings.

The Sumak Kawsay therefore presents an idea of development founded on the harmonious relationship between society, the economy and the environment. It is informed by a principle of economic sustainability opposed to a regime dependent on short term profits. As such, it demands that nature be not conceived solely as capital or private property but as a patrimony: we inherit our natural resources and have a duty as citizens to nourish, use and protect them so as to pass them on to future generations. There is thus a principle of intergenerational justice involved[1].

Central to the concept of Sumak Kawsay, therefore, is the rupture from the western model of development based on the emancipatory promise of societies guided by the invisible hand of rational markets. Contrarily, it draws inspiration from the solidarity and communitarian economies of indigenous communities which stress cooperation and associativism over competition and rugged individualism[2].

The second conceptual innovation presented by indigenous movements is the idea of environmental rights. Although not a new concept, they were the first in the world to enshrine them within national legal orders, both in Bolivia and Ecuador.  The idea of giving rights to nature implies another radical break from the juridical tradition informing western democratic thought. In fact, it demands that we cease giving value to nature based on its instrumental use to us as humans (i.e. the uses we can put it to for production purposes in a market economy) and recognize its intrinsic value in virtue of its existence.

Recognizing environmental rights forces us to reconsider our anthropocentric stance vis-à-vis nature. Protecting the collective rights of ecosystems to exist and regenerate provides an innovative juridical framework with which to reverse the ecological damage caused by an extractivist paradigm of development[3].

The third conceptual innovation is referred to as plurinationality. Both Ecuador and Bolivia are countries with very diverse societies consisting of a plethora of ethnic groups. This diversity was never truly represented, but rather excluded by the practices of a western architecture of the state which assumed the homogeneity of the nation. Traditionally, the liberal state tends to remain neutral with respects to social plurality and conceives of its citizens solely as rights bearing individuals. Not recognizing the diverse ethnic groups and their respective demands allowed for the wholesale exclusion of the indigent and the different from policy making and political participation.

The concept of plurinationality seeks to reverse this process by changing the architecture of the liberal state. What it demands is not the homogenization of social plurality within a universal liberal understanding of citizenship, but rather the recognition of difference as the basis for a new configuration of citizenship. The plurinational state explicitly recognizes the diversity of its citizens; it actively promotes an intercultural dialogue, and provides platforms of mediation amongst them[4].

These three ideas radically question the Western understandings of development, the legal standing of nature, and what constitutes citizenship, respectively. They are, however, also expanding democratic theory by exposing the Eurocentric, anthropocentric and liberal bias that Western thought projects onto its alleged universal understanding of democracy. Precisely through a rupture with fundamental concepts of the Western model was indigenous political thought able to imagine new legal instruments and a new democratic ethic founded on the principles of environmental sustainability and collective rights.

The examples presented here allow us to see that Western democratic thought, once capable of shedding its particular liberal biases, is indeed free to expand in new and different directions. Such an expansion is critical in this historical moment as basic democratic tenets are being increasingly sacrificed in the name of a perpetual state of exception. Democratic theory should not give in to the false choices presented by the logics of crisis; rather, like indigenous movements, it should begin to reinvent itself by overcoming its liberal ideological limitations.


  • Galeano, E. 2009, “La Naturaleza no es Muda” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Derechos de la Naturaleza: el futuro es ahora. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Gudynas, E. 2009 “Seis puntos clave en ambiente y desarrollo” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. El Buen Vivir: una vía para el desarollo. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Ramírez, R., Navarrete R. Seeds of “Good Living” in Ecuador? New Left Project. Available @
  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa 2009, “Las Paradojas de Nuestro Tiempo y la Plurinacionalidad” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Plurinacionalidad: democracia en la diversidad. Abya Yala: Quito

[1] Gudynas 2009

[2] Ramirez & Navarrete

[3] Galeano 2009

[4] Santos 2009


Filed under Democratic Theory, Development, Environmental Rights, Environmentalism, Indigenous, Latin America, liberalism, political economy

Popular Sovereignty and Sovereign Debt

What does the friction between popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entail for our democratic orders? Are we experiencing a loss of popular sovereignty in the sovereign debt crisis?

Voices from both the left and the right decry the austerity measures devised by supranational institutions as amounting to nothing less but an assault on popular sovereignty. As fiscal hawks chip away at the welfare state in their “give-no-quarter” pursuit of balanced budgets, many a political pundit has donned the populist cape and rushed to the rescue of the “sovereign people”. Indeed, the austerity-medicine shoved down the throats of most European citizens -without their consent- has brought to the fore what now appear as two diametrically opposed concepts: popular sovereignty and sovereign debt.

It is easy at this point to slip into demagoguery, claiming that sovereign debts are illegitimate because, after all, “the people” did not cause the crisis. Blame the bankers, right? What is harder, however, is to understand what the friction between the concepts of popular sovereignty and sovereign debt entails for our democratic regimes. A look into the past at one of the first moments in history when this tension surfaced will help us understand the matter more profoundly.

The years were the 1690s in England, a period also known as the Financial Revolution. In 1694 the Bank of England was established to supply fresh credit to a cash-strapped Crown for the expansion of the Royal Navy’s fleet. For the first time individuals and firms could invest in the fortunes of government on the assumption that they would be paid back with interest at later date. Future revenues from taxation and/or economic growth of the nation would serve as collateral for investment – hence the build-up of national, or sovereign, debt[1].

The institution of national debt however was not well received. In fact, it implied a radical re-thinking of the relationship between the people and government. In the late seventeenth century this relationship had been defined by the political theories of civic republicanism (Harrington, Milton) and social contract theorists (Pufendorf, Locke) as one based explicitly on the consent of the governed. It was the people’s responsibility, as bearers of god-granted rights and as free citizens, to erect a government through the election of public magistrates (or monarchs) which would rule in their stead. Sovereignty ultimately resided with the people who enjoyed the right to revoke the mandate given to their representatives if their trust was breached. Late seventeenth century political consciousness generally conceived of a legitimate government as one founded upon on the will of the people and upon some idea of a social contract.

Accompanying the idea of “the people” as the original source of political sovereignty was the concept of civic virtue. The civic virtues were those qualities required by citizens and governments alike to be in control of their destiny and not succumb to external dominion. Civic virtue entailed political agency: participating in the political affairs of one’s community as a means of protecting individual freedoms. In fact, the very notion of personal liberty was intimately connected to the idea of civic virtue. Liberty was defined by a certain degree of political self-determination which ensured autonomy from external rule (the arbitrary rule of a monarch or of another nation for example). On the contrary, not being free was caused by being dependant on the will of someone or something else. Un-freedom thus entailed the condition in which one lost human agency and the ability to defend and define one’s liberty[2].

Within this conceptual universe, the idea of sovereign debt clashed with both the concepts of popular sovereignty and civic virtue. While before the fate of the nation was conceived as inextricably tied to the political agency of the sovereign people, now sovereign debt chained the fortunes of government to the will of anonymous investors. As nations increasingly relied on external and private credit (and eventually on the issuing of bonds), it was perceived that the people would steadily lose political agency and control over the fate of their nations. Sovereign debt therefore created a condition of dependence of government towards creditors. And, as we have seen, dependence signified the loss of civil freedom[3].

In such a way, the stability of government was no longer sustained by the civic virtue of its citizens, nor from that holy pact called the social contract. Now, government was to rely on the fickle nature of investors and what would eventually become the almighty bond market. As the historian J.G.A. Pocock puts it:

“Stability of government in the present became linked to the self-perpetuation of speculation concerning the future … government and politics seemed to have been placed at the mercy of passion, fantasy and appetite, and these forces were known to feed on themselves and to be without moral limit”[4]

“Booms and busts, bulls and bears became the determinants of politics”[5]

The lesson we may draw from this historical example is not that sovereign debt is intrinsically bad. Every modern government must at some point take up debt in order to deliver on its responsibilities. The lesson here is in recognizing the dangers posed by the loss of democratic control over the institutions of public governance. Increasingly the policies of sovereign nations are unduly influenced by credit rating agencies, international markets and anonymous investors through their speculating and passing judgment over sovereign debt. Brought to an extreme this situation becomes incompatible with the basic tenets of democracy. Subsuming popular sovereignty to the arbitrary whim of capricious markets robs the concept of the social contract of its fundamental source of legitimacy, namely, what Locke called the “consent of the governed”.

The political discourses of the late seventeenth century show us that, at times, the machinations of the world of finance and the balanced functioning of a democratic regime may be at odds. It also warns us that dependence of our governments on unaccountable institutions minimizes the political agency of citizens, thereby curbing our democratic freedoms first of which is the exercise of democratic control over government. No matter how serious the sovereign debt crisis may be, democracy and popular sovereignty must remain non-negotiable.


Pocock, J.G.A. 1985. Virtue, Commerce, and History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Skinner, Q. 1990. “The Republican Ideal of Political Liberty”, in Bock, Skinner & Viroli ed. Machiavelli and Republicanism, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Pocock 1985, p69

[2] Skinner 1990

[3] Pocock 1985, p69

[4] Pocock 1985, p112

[5] Pocock 1985, p112


Filed under Democratic Theory, John Locke, political economy, political philosophy, political theory, Social Contract

“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