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Democracy, Complexity and Participation

Patrick O’Mahony*

Abstract ToC


The contemporary crisis of democratic governance, heralded in opposing political philosophies since the 1960s, carries on into the present. One response is simply to maintain the procedural core of a liberal-pluralist model of democracy. The essay, drawing inspiration from ideas of responsibility emerging from the civil societal periphery, instead follows more radical democratic models in proposing that the status and role of public participation, and with it deliberative democracy, should be rethought. The paper concludes with some reflections on the empirical-theoretical implications for social and political theory.


A central question in social and political theory and research today is the extent to which political institutions are capable of responding to new currents of innovation carried from groups located on the periphery. Peripheries begin from outside of institutionalized complexes of power and, depending on circumstances and their own strategies, may work themselves into positions of core influence within the existing institutional system, sometimes internally transforming its value basis and structural practices. Specifying what constitutes modern peripheries in a situation-invariant manner is hazardous as they are composed of groups who cannot be assumed to be compatible in relation to aims, identities, organizational preferences or opportunities. For example, the two classical 'radical' movements of the periphery emphasized in recent theory and research, the women's movement and the environmental movement, are internally extremely heterogeneous and, at least in certain respects, quite different from one another in political orientation, with environmental movements taking on a more overt 'public-political' form.

Neither of these movements alone, nor a range of other 'new' movements centered on health or cultural identity or 'old' new movements concerned with social and economic exclusion, represents the singular focus of this paper. Rather, I am interested in theoretically exploring how changes in the societal environment of democratic institutions lead to demands for extended political participation and enhance the prospects for new themes of responsibility, emanating from 'libertarian-radical' currents on the periphery, to challenge existing structural arrangements. The idea of responsibility that is advanced here and associated in a general sense with certain of the new social movements is on the one hand based on the idea of extending the potential inclusiveness of modern society, for example, feminism and anti-racism movements, or on the other dealing with dysfunctional and counter-productive modernization, for example, ecology movements or peace movements (Offe, 1987). It is not denied that responsibility understood in this sense could be interpreted from certain standpoints as irresponsible, for example, overloading the political system with externalities or that responsibility could be defined in other ways, for example, neo-conservative, communitarian ideas of obligation. The kind of responsibility associated with new movements also may, however, be regarded as having the most far-reaching consequences for radical democratic innovation. The feminist movement in a general sense, understood as the interplay of rights and responsibilities, challenges the liberal distinction between public and private and environmental issues, understood as the interplay between risk and responsibility, have innovative democratic implications in the form of mediation processes, public hearings and various kinds of public consultation (Beck, 1995; O’Mahony, 2009, 2010a).

Demands for participation by peripheral actors is but one facet of the political instability of contemporary democracies which is manifested also in the rapidity of regime changes, in the difficulty of gaining consensus for policy initiatives and in the weakening of the left-right cleavage that generates political de-alignment. Demands for participation gain their force somewhere in the space between embracing concepts of responsibility emerging on the periphery with respect to challenges of inclusion and risk and the degree to which peripheral groups are able to influence political structures and values in circumstances of general instability. The degree to which the political authority is, or can be made, open to greater levels of participation is pivotal to the realization chances of peripheral mobilizations, manifested in the formal political system, for example, in enhanced powers of municipalities and local authorities, increased utilization of referenda and public inquiries or beyond formal politics in changed governance of households.

The strength of the link between peripheral demands for enhanced participation and institutional responsiveness of the formal political system depends on the ‘translation mechanisms’ between civil society and political institutions. Currently, this is characterized by chronic instability and non-transparency as the latter are no longer sufficiently responsive to the concerns of their social and cultural bases and have lost authority and, in many cases, the capacity to make decisions that enjoy general assent in public opinion. The extent to which this is true varies widely according to national context but it tends to be relatively true everywhere in the 'new polities' of spatial transformation and of identity (Kitchelt, 1993). The widespread sense of dissatisfaction with the degree of accountability of political institutions has therefore brought a new topicality to debates on participation and political responsibility, and led to new academic concerns spanning social and political theory and research in which political transformation and social change are considered together (Eder, 1995, Habermas, 1993).

The academic link between the articulation of new themes of responsibility and calls for participation follows the linkages established in the field of practice. Radical movements begin by constructing a moral-normative discourse, oriented by distinctive perceptions of social problems, and then seek to win support for this discourse by gaining influence in general, public discourse. In this process, paradigmatically in the case of the environmental movement, existing political channels have been perceived as insufficiently responsive and, in more radical formulations, as part of the problem. This has led to a strong identification between green politics and calls for a qualitatively new kind of participation. This sequence, occurring in a volatile climate, has wide-ranging academic implications of which two are particularly significant in the present context. Firstly, it reduces the differences between social science and political theory. The circumstances of rapid social and political change require dexterity and flexibility in relating social and political, phenomena. Secondly, the uncertainty of existing structural configurations leads to concern with the mechanisms of creating new ones. This renders the 'science' in social science more precarious as social and political arrangements exhibit a high level of instability, defying confident generalization, and creating new dilemmas for many academics on whether to describe change, or to argue for it in support of the actors with whose goals they may broadly sympathize. Normatively grounded argument becomes all the more pivotal when academic concerns are future-oriented in a climate in which the future is highly uncertain.

The essay begins by showing how the practice of democracy has departed from the axioms of classical liberal-pluralist theory to such an extent that a leading representative of this theoretical tradition speaks of democracy's 'broken promises' (Bobbio, 1987). The situation appears even less promising when pessimistic assumptions about the chronic over-complexity of modern societies, de-stabilizing the relationship between democratic institutions and wider society, are taken into account. These conditions may create opportunities for radical movements on the periphery to become institutionally influential, especially if the logic of events favour their agendas. Significant influence in contemporary circumstances, reflected in the self-understanding of the new movements, depends upon an expansion of opportunities for participation which, given the extent of current problems and the distance of contemporary peripheral protest cultures from institutionalized values, would have radical implications for existing institutional structures. The implications, explored in sections three and four, are that, if such protest cultures carry messages that society cannot ignore from both pragmatic and normative standpoints, theories of democratic participation, and with it the role of deliberative democracy, will have to be rethought. This implies, in section 3, a critique of liberal-pluralist accounts of limits to participation and, in section 4, the exploration of normative orientations that draw inspiration from peripheral models of responsibility and that call for more discursive political institutions. The paper concludes with some reflections on the empirical-theoretical implications of these orientations for the broader field of political and social theory and research.

Complexity and the Broken Promises of DemocracyToC

Bobbio (1987) both defends the classical principles of institutionalized political democracy, majority rule for taking political decisions, elective procedures, rights of communication, and the representational model of the transfer of power, and criticizes the actual workings of democracy. Bobbie's list of the "broken promises" of democracy, summarized in Zolo (1992, pp 102-105) is a long one. It includes: (a) the weakening of the content of popular sovereignty in face of large-scale public bureaucracy, in part paradoxically resulting from democratic pressures such as the institutionalization of welfare states (b) the supersession of the individual as actor by large groups embedded in more complex functional systems with a corresponding decline in the individual's autonomy (c) the individual's lack of competence means that technical problems must be solved by experts (d) The ideal of education for citizenship has failed in the face of sophisticated techniques for the organization and manipulation of consensus (e) the general, disinterested nature of representation has been violated by corporatist or neo-corporatist bargaining structures which attribute public status to some interest groups but not to others (f) democracy has not shaped all social relationships; it has been limited both by the power of large corporations and public bureaucracies to decide key questions and by the fact that everyday institutions such as the schools, families and hospitals are run substantially on non-democratic lines (g) it has failed to curb the spectre of invisible power whereby in secret, and unaccountably, democratic processes are contradicted in instances such as the funding of political parties, patronage, or the denial of liberty through surveillance.

In these circumstances, Bobbio retreats to the procedural, minimal core of democracy which he defines (1987, 24-26) as composed of (a) the political participation of the greatest number of citizens (b) majority rule for political decision-taking (c) rights of communication and with it choice between different programmes and groups of leaders and (d) the protection of the private sphere. The acceptance of this minimal programme represents a retreat from universalistic optimism about the capacity of democratic institutions to guarantee both welfare and justice. Bobbie's account represents a recognition that the social environment of politics has proven recalcitrant to the influence of liberal democratic ideals, though these ideals cannot be completely given up, as they still represent, however compromised, the only secure basis of the defence of freedom and the potential for equality.

Bobbie's emphasis on the agency of democratic ideals leads to the political community or demos appearing to lie merely on the outside of democratic institutions. But the social forces pressing on these institutions can only be treated in this fashion if it can be supposed that this 'defensive' programme is the only option available and also a sufficient one. This perspective requires judgment from what might be called 'the other side'. In this connection, Eder (1995, p. 338) draws attention to the failure of the traditional theory of democracy to address the reciprocal effects of different democratic regime and their societal contexts. Bobbio's considerations, therefore, need to be extended to consider not just the agency of ideals but the ideals of actual agents in the life world and the complex system environments in which they are situated and to further consider how they are inter-related, an issue taken up below in the section on critical theory. Tom Burn’s idea of ‘organic’ democracy (Burns, 1999, Burns et al, 2000) also operates as a counter-point to Bobbio’s diagnosis raising similar questions of whether democracy should defend a minimum procedural self-understanding or accept that it should change, indeed is rapidity changing in Burns’ view, to respond to challenges generated by social change such as forces of globalization, the inter-relation of risk and expertise, the changing social bases of politics and the transformation of governance itself towards greater societal self-organization beyond traditional models of representative, sovereign governance.

The societal environment, understood in systems-theoretical terms, provides important insight into how differentiation has changed the environment of democratic institutions. A central assumption of contemporary systems theory is the loss of primacy of the political system, which in modern societies is reduced to one among many horizontally equal functional systems who form environments for one another (Luhmann, 1982). The enhancement of the goals of any one system to the detriment of others leads to the neglect of necessary system differences and risks impairing the complex differentiation process that has historically guaranteed the 'autonomous' functioning of the different systems and promises to do so ever more in the future. The move towards horizontally equal function systems has, in the same process, led to a loss of the 'vertical' power of the political system. This is accompanied by the introduction of a new kind of power that Zolo, following Luhmann, describes as no longer causal and transitive but relational and reflexive (Zolo, 1992, p. 125). The application of power has therefore become unpredictable and dependent on recursive relations which 'binds the partners of a power relationship in a network structure which has no clear centre1 (id). Without the authority conferred by the complex of vertical political power, contemporary society has to function without a centre.

Without accepting the radical implication of a minimal ‘liberal’ state and the associated abandonment of normative powers of the law-politics couplet as does systems-theory, Claus Offe (1987) has reconstructed its descriptively rich analysis to outline the steering deficits accompanying the modern conjuncture in crisis-theoretical terms. Modern society has in the four spheres of material production, cultural reproduction, politics and public policy only apparently created an increase in options. Paradoxically, the increase in options for all has produced a corresponding reaction by the administered core of modern societal systems, which increasingly disposes over sophisticated technologies of societal steering in the media of money, information and power, eg, individualized incentive systems that can be used as much against as for individuals, databases of personal information, that threatens the only apparently gained freedom. The increase in potency of systems rationality in the life world is not accompanied by an increase in efficacy. The pluralization of sectoral rationalities and of interests has made reaching decisions tortuously difficult. Offe sums up both the argument of loss of freedom and loss of efficacy with the observation that the modernization of the parts of modern societies is achieved at the expense of the modernization of the whole. Society itself has become incapable of comprehending its future as a project and therefore has been unable to dispose over what Offe considers the core of modernity, the ability to dispose over options and to choose. The ability to choose, however, cannot any longer be simply connected back to a dominant political centre, which could somehow dispose over sufficient knowledge and competence to decide for society as a whole, especially through legal steering. Any attempt to do so would merely add to the disempowering technocratic logic that both Bobbio and systems theory in different ways criticize.

In an environment of growing complexity and non-transparency, radical social movements, and conservative neo-liberal and neo-conservative movements, vie with one another to specify and win adherents to models of societal development that could overcome the powerlessness of individuals, communities and groups in face of state-technocratic, corporate and expert cultures. Both espouse a commitment to participation but along very different lines. On the one hand, the conservative movement is concerned with enhancing individual power through freeing economic agents from social and regulatory controls in both producing and consuming activities, and with restoring 'traditional' values of community living. There is a willingness to accept, in pursuit of these goals, new or renewed social stratification that enhance differences between strong and weak, wealthy and poor. Participation, equated with the power to choose in certain dimensions, is therefore de-coupled from politics and turned into an aspect of lifestyle, to be procured by money and through availing of re-energized community values in the private sphere. This position is associated with variants of neo-liberalism and neo-conservativism, drawing off both right-wing libertarianism and conservative communitarianism. Such perspectives are opposed to what they perceive to be the paternalism of the welfare state (Offe, 1987). The degree of integration of economy and welfare state in the second half of the twentieth century is an explicit target. A society that by contrast operates with a stronger differentiation of economy and wider society will generate conditions in which the certain kinds of virtuous individuals, especially those holding to the value that they are obligated to society not the other way round, could come to the fore. As such, contemporary right-of-centre and right-wing ideologies in practice involves an uneasy combination of individualistic and communitarian orientations. The history of the New Labour movement in Britain is instructive in this regard.

The kind of participation sought by radical movements is, on the contrary, both social in the sense of greater self-organizing autonomy and political in the sense of redressing the distance of decision-making from the influence of citizens and groups. Only by correcting the imbalance in societal efficacy between existing institutionalized norms of responsibility, which in the diagnosis actually lead to increased irresponsibility, and new themes of responsibility involving more or less radical shifts in the value basis of modern societies, can a new societal rationality be envisaged that extricates society from deadends of modernity represented by such phenomena as environmental despoliation and patriarchal, ethnic and racial domination. The double reference of the new movements, on the one hand, to cultural self-transformation by complexes of situated actors in local situations and, on the other, to transforming dominating and destructive macro-political values, cannot be easily separated from one another given the interdependencies of modern politics and other social spheres. In the political sphere, the new movements argue for a kind of responsibility that is substantive as well as procedural. Not alone do certain value complexes require transformation, but procedural means need to be adopted to ensure that this transformation is genuinely willed. Strong currents within the new movements have, therefore coupled responsibility and participation.

The relationship between democratic institutions and the contemporary societal environment is therefore related to two radical political cultures, one of which, the conservative, has gained considerably more institutional power than the other associated with the radical democratic ideals of new social movements. The populist form of the first has been discovered to offer, in electoral terms, acceptable trade-offs between the weakening of universalistic criteria and the welfare and symbolic 'comfort' of a majority, even if the new coalition of interests appears unstable and constantly likely to fragment. By comparison, the new movements while making some gains are far less advanced in terms of institutional penetration. The knowledge claims and values they represent, if fully institutionalized, would mark a radical break with their contemporary institutional equivalents. Yet so deep and apparently intractable are the problems of modern society, either on its own terms of freedom to choose, or in radical terms of limits to the way in which inner human nature or outer, external nature can continue to be manipulated and dominated, peripheral themes of a new kind of institutionalized responsibility will not simply go away. The issue that arises is to what extent are modern societies equipped to reflect and decide upon peripheral innovations of a radical nature given the weakness of existing democratic institutions? The shrinkage in the effective powers of democratic institutions in the face of the complexity of their societal environment, together with the introduction of neo-corporatist, legal, and other 'relief mechanisms' for representative democracy, have brought the issue of enhancing participation to centre stage.

Liberal Democratic Theory and ParticipationToC

The theory and practice of liberal democracy has on the whole remained unenthusiastic about extending participation at the core of the political system. In circumstances where democracies are everywhere exhibiting crisis symptoms, the capacity to institutionally realize forms of 'civil-societal' participation associated with neo-liberal reforms, together with their intrinsically greater popularity, have contrasted with the desultory and insecure influence of the participative claims of the new radical political culture. If opposition to participative innovation is a factor inhibiting the influence of this political culture, on what theoretical grounds does this opposition rest?

Liberal-pluralist democratic theorists such as Sartori (1987) and Bobbio (1987) are suspicious of the extension of self-governing capacities through forms of direct democracy that seek to replace or complement representative democratic institutions. This need not lead to a suspicion of participation as such. Sartori is clear that while elections and representation are necessary instruments of large-scale democracy, they are also its Achilles heel in that the act of delegating power also involves its surrendering. Further, elections are not necessarily free and representation is not necessarily genuine. These observations raise for Sartori the centrality of the issue of participation.

Sartori distinguishes between two kinds of participation; that associated with representative democracy in which decision-making power is delegated to the elected, and that associated with direct democracy in which power is directly disposed over by those affected. On the whole, he is favorably disposed towards the first, though pessimistic about its actual and potential extent, and sceptical of the second. In his view, while public opinion continually conditions decision-making, the expansion of self-governing capacity is limited by the low cognitive competence of the average citizen. Sartori considers the strong version of participative democracy to be largely consistent with the concept of 'direct democracy'. The idea of participative democracy also includes referendum democracy, but while referendums are participative they are so only in a consultative sense and their actual practice suggests that they can be understood more as supplements to representative systems than as participative innovations, though the relationship between referendums and representative institutions may be far from smooth and can in the view of Setala even weaken the deliberative capacity of these institutions (Setala, 2006). He defines direct democracy, in contrast to representative democracy, as a democracy without representatives and without representational transmission belts.

Sartori's low confidence in the potential of direct democracy rests on a number of arguments. The first, and Sartori's main argument, is that it is wrong and even dangerous to over-estimate the commitment and knowledge of potential participants. In circumstances of low political competence, decisions would either be made on uninformed premises or decision-making would devolve to those who were more committed but, according to Sartori, also more likely to hold extreme views. The result would be a more confrontational and 'ideological' politics where rival proponents of 'perfectionist' worldviews would ceaselessly contend to the neglect of the realistic need to make decisions on good grounds and in reasonable time.

Secondly, Sartori claims that those who suppose that direct democracy can function better than the delegated, elite-based decision-making characteristic of representational systems have been unable to demonstrate how the central virtue of these systems, a procedure to select those who govern within an institutional structure that functions with tolerable efficiency, can be replaced. Democracy in modern, differentiated societies cannot be the aggregation of 'little democracies' for its essence lies in a system of feedbacks or 'chained reactions' which makes properly selected leaders responsive to those they lead. It is, therefore, responsiveness to public opinion as a whole, which indirectly, that is, beyond the sphere of direct participation in decision-making, regulates the actions of - ideally - responsible and competent elite decision-makers. This relation constitutes the legitimacy grounds of modern democracies. The small group and, necessarily, additive micro-democratic models of proponents of direct democracy do not show how efficiency and legitimacy can be related to one another in any comparable manner. Bobbio (1987) notes the further danger of oppressive collective consensus in small group democracies submerging individuals and minorities. One could add that deliberative democracy could be related to this dichotomy in the following way. Insofar as deliberation is exclusively or primarily understood as taking place in representative or legal institutions it can be regarded as consistent with liberal pluralism – it offers a description of democratic and legal procedures – but insofar as it is extended into granting decision-making status to the public in extended forms of participation, public deliberation, it steps over the line into unsustainable forms of direct democracy (see Habermas, 1993, and Bohman, 1994, for a discussion of this issue).

One could grant some validity to each of the objections to participatory democracy in turn. It is true that the political competence of citizens can often be low, at least when they are not part of ‘mobilized’ public spheres in Habermas’s sense (Habermas, 1993). Forms of direct democracy can encounter selection and efficiency problems. Small-group democracies can lead to a systematic denial of influence to individuals and minorities. However, the manner in which the problematic is set up and the perspectives adopted in liberal-pluralist writing is based on a restrictive selectivity leading to a number of problems. The first problem is the defence of so-called 'macro' or representative democracy against direct democracy, as if this was the only institutional contrast that mattered. In fact, possibilities of direct democracy constitute only a relatively small part of the problem of wider participation and they are mostly part of participative initiatives rather than their central mechanism as, for example, meaningful consultation as part of participative designs in planning policy. Similarly, they feed into other decision-making forms such as legislative processes or policy implementation. In those cases where small-group democracies are constituted on their own terms, as in the case of neighbourhood democracy, there is no principled reason as to why constitutional rules cannot be designed that protect minority positions.

The second problem is related to the first. It is true that citizens often exhibit low political competence in relation to macro-democratic issues but not always and, in any case, they may exhibit very high levels of competence in areas where they demand rights of participation such as new movement collective goods issues like planning decisions or identity rights. Citizen activism in these areas arises precisely because of the perceived inadequacy of representative systems to represent non-negotiable basic needs such as freedom from risk or the right to a cultural identity. The third problem is again related to the second. If democracy is compromised by the emergence of 'collective actors' with enormous decision-making powers such as public bureaucracies, economic corporations, and labour associations then why should the mass citizenry be denied powers of direct participation as collective actors on issues which precisely follow from the powers of 'executive' decision-making authorities? As green politics demonstrates, the emergence of self-organizing capacity in civil society leads to a shift in the spatial terrain of politics from the national to the local, and from indirect to direct political participation, leading to suspicion of the power of undemocratic 'cosy' cartels. If this creates a problem for macro-democracy, it is precisely because it already has a problem.

The fourth problem is that liberal-pluralists defend maco-democracy in terms of its formal institutional functioning and not in terms of the core of democratic politics as defined by Habermas (1993), judgment by the mass citizenry of the reasonableness of its outputs deriving from the institutionalization of discursive procedures of will formation. This leads to an unsatisfactory situation in which, following Bobbio, many problems with the actual functioning of democracy are identified but no substantive value shifts in citizens’ political culture or innovative mechanisms for overcoming their alienation or disempowerment are suggested to deal with new or old problems conspicuously poorly handled by the minimal core of formal democratic institutions.The unity underlying this critique of liberal-pluralist theory on the count of participation is its inadequate treatment of the relationship between democratic institutions and their societal environment. From an institutional standpoint, the extent of institutional adaptation is under-estimated, for example, more complex intermediation systems, the expansion of public consultation of all kinds, and changes in the framework of rights. From a normative standpoint, democratic institutions do not appear as communicatively anchored in and responsible to society leading to dangers on both sides, for example, elite self-interest and corruption or populist mobilization that threaten minority rights. Social changes in their environment appears almost irrelevant to democratic institutions, which still carry on with their minimal functions, even though ancillary forms of making and implementing decisions multiply in the face of new social pressures. This approach is, therefore, limited for the task of assessing public involvement in political agenda setting, decision-making and implementation. An alternative standpoint is therefore required that starts on the other side and considers what democratically relevant changes are taking place in society and how this may alter the nature and goals of democratic institutions.

Critical-theoretical Reflections on Responsibility and ParticipationToC

The contemporary political cultural climate is, on the whole, not propitious for the even partial realization of a new 'utopian imaginary'. It has become a truism of contemporary critical theory that Utopian potentials have been snuffed out with the continuing dominance of a conservative-leaning populism in mainstream politics. While in the cultural milieux of everyday life, libertarian-radical values have had considerable influence, in institutionalized politics their influence while significant in some instances – racial civil and women’s rights, for example, in some parts of the world it has also been sporadic and incomplete. The green movement, for example, so far the most politicized, is highly dependent on an unconventional tactical repertoire, including civil disobedience, while its influence on political programmes has been episodic and by and large unsatisfactory with respect to its more radical goals. Yet the absence of high levels of institutionalized influence does not exhaust the potential significance of value change coming from the radical periphery. Its actual power can be envisaged to grow given two assumptions; firstly, that the social facts of modern life such as collective perceptions of risk, inequality, legitimate difference, unacceptable rigidities and non-transparencies, deficiencies in democratic self-determination, will move in a direction that is favourable; and, secondly, that arguments and strategies from the periphery become more concentrated, sophisticated, and influential. The latter consideration informs the normative horizons of critical social and political theory.

Contemporary critical theory examines the possible remedy for the problems of democracy of building-in greater responsiveness or 'reflexivity' between democratic institutions and their societal environment in three central ways: Firstly, as a challenge to render transparent structurally complex interdependencies in a manner which offers a starting point for evaluating the dimensions of responsible individual and collective action; secondly, as an interest in democratizing the institutional mechanisms governing the impact of new themes of responsibility from the radical periphery, with important implications for deliberative democracy; and, thirdly, as a problem of grasping the relationship between enhanced capacities for agency in both the decision-making core and the periphery and innovation-responsive, flexible institutionalization in modern societies. These positions seek to offer a response to problems of democracy in conditions of chronic de-stabilizing complexity by diagnosing the need and addressing the potential for realizing responsible action through increased participation. They are understood respectively, through Offe as a question of arranging structural inter-dependencies so as to maximize the epistemic and normative prospects for responsibility by appropriate institutional design; with Habermas, of improving deliberative capacities to respond to a responsibility demanding public; and with ‘constitution theory’ as described by Joas of clarifying the role of public agents in democratization. In the following sub-sections, each of them is considered in turn.

Offe: structural complexity and responsible actionToC

According to Offe (1987), modern societies suffer from second-order problems of modernization. The satisfaction of basic needs, first-order modernization, has been achieved by means of increased differentiation and specialization but not without creating complex, and increasingly unmanageable, interdependencies between action systems. These interdependencies generate second order problems of achieving coordination between the different kinds of rationalization pursued by such action systems. For example, the contemporary economic crisis, 2008-2011, has been in substantial part the product of new strategies of risk management in the economic system, frequently on a supra-national scale, that ran ahead of and actually disparaged legal and political regulation. In these circumstances, the link between moral-normative themes of responsibility and actual practice is obscured in that it is epistemically unclear what is actually happening and equally unclear where responsibility lies or indeed what kind of responsible powers could at all be exercised. Responsibility is hence tied to the problem of second-order modernity in a manner quite different from Kant’s idea of direct personal responsibility, a viewpoint that Weber could still uphold even if uneasily in his idea of an ethic of responsibility and becomes instead, as Hans Jonas argued. a second-order problem of anticipating as far as possible the unforeseeable consequences of actions (Jonas, 1979).

Offe outlines three options to alleviate the problem of interdependency. These are, firstly, contra the insights of system-theory, to enhance the sectoral rationality of one of the sub-systems and give it functional primacy over the others, secondly, to recombine their different rationalities into a new configuration or, thirdly, to unburden the sub-systems from one another by granting greater autonomy to their system rationalities so that they burden their environments less with externalities. In relation to the first option, the experience either of dominant state-regulation or entrusting the self-regulatory logic of the market with macro-social steering has led to a 'doctrinaire one-sidedness' in which a particular kind of rationality, market or state-regulation, has to be extended beyond its own domain with counter-productive results. The second, redesigning steering mechanisms from each of the sectors and recombining them, does not appear to offer favourable outcomes either. Offe instances a 'cornucopia' of contemporary economic, social, labour market, and pedagogical controversies to illustrate the problems created by extended interdependencies between sub-systems with different rationalities.

The third option is his preferred one. For Offe, this requires not 'putting sectoral modernization gains under restrictions as such, but to balance them off against the losses of well-being which strike back in the form of steering deficits, not just at the society as a whole but against each individual actor as well.' (id, p. 19). He claims that a perceptible sense that further differentiation would not be worth it currently lies beneath many socio-political discourses but this perception is only kept under control by the possibility of a severe loss of welfare if the option were in fact pursued. Nonetheless, he reaches the conclusion that 'the real Utopia today lies in the freedom of the calculated zero-option of rational self-limitation in the face of the exponentially growing risks of interdependence.' (id, p. 20).

Such a zero-option could only be envisaged if the relationship between actions and their consequences in substantive, temporal and social dimensions could be cognitively comprehended and politically-morally adjudged within the horizons of social systems disburdened from damaging externalities. While he does not analyse this in detail, he claims that improved control over contemporary steering problems, and over the future consequences of further modernization, depends upon an increase in citizen participation whether expressed in the form of a strengthening of constitutional rights of protection and redress, or by means of a local autonomy that lessened implementation problems (id, p. 22). These reflections therefore lead back to the central issue of the relationship between participation and responsibility. He diagnoses a scale problem of such magnitude in attempts to resolve dysfunctional consequences of modernization as to need radical changes in the system of governance, requiring a level of participatory vitality that would support, rather than inhibit, the rational exercise of responsibility. This might be manifested, for example, in a slowing down of decision-making and the building in of reversibility, due to careful evaluation of options on substantive, temporal and social planes.

An important implication for further work of Offe's diagnosis and prognosis is that reordering structural relations should be considered on both cognitive grounds of feasibility and political normative grounds of responsibility. From the standpoint of innovation currents from the periphery, the task opening up for critically oriented research is to show how, and to what extent, its normative premises could be realized in practical arrangements and functional inter-connections. To achieve this, normative premises must be practically contextualized so that they become oriented towards establishing new systems of knowledge, which reflect achievable potentials, an idea in some ways consistent with Shapiro’s emphasis on the importance of problem driven research in the social sciences (Shapiro, 2007). At the level of clarifying cognitive potentials and their structural realisation, this work must be willing to accept interdisciplinarity, embracing the natural, technical, political and social sciences if it is, in many cases, to clarify goals of structural change that peripheral actors might wish to achieve or that support peripheral claims that they could be achieved.

Habermas: complexity, deliberation and responsibilityToC

The reconfiguration of structural interdependencies through the building-in of greater collective capacities for reflection, raises the issue of how such reflective and structure-altering evaluations might be made. Offe's theoretical position is structuralist in the sense of an observational account of states of affairs. Such an observational standpoint leaves open the question of by what immanent mechanisms society, in whole or in part, can acquire the will to undertake radical structural re-design. The examination of will-formation of this kind requires another theoretical orientation, oriented to the discursive analysis of how decision-making institutions depend upon societal deliberation and how, in the trade-off between efficiency, effectiveness and entrenched power on one side, and legitimacy and new themes and carriers of responsibility, on the other, institutionalized values and procedures are maintained, elaborated or transformed.

Habermas's (1993) analysis of how deliberative procedures impose normative restraints on decision-making shows how Offe's problem of 'rational responsibility' depends upon substantive and evolving, rather than formal and pre-given, legitimation of discourses and institutionalization of decision-making procedures. Through changes in institutionalized discourses and procedures, the relationship between democratic institutions and their societal environment is constantly reconstructed. Habermas addresses how this process, the essence of democracy, conditions Offe's problem of how responsible action may be instituted in conditions of complex interdependencies and destructive potentials. This pivotal relation can be addressed through posing three central questions: (i) How can the perspective of overall 'rational responsibility' be considered in conditions of polycentrically differentiated societies?; (ii) How is the problem of the democratic regulation of relations between sub-systems to be considered in relation to such rational responsibility?; (iii) What role and what kind of periphery-representing participation would be thinkable in relation to the model of societal rationality and inter-systemic relations emerging from (i) and (ii). In the following, each of these is addressed in turn.

i. systemic complexity and deliberative politics

According to systems theory generally, there is no longer any privileged standpoint from which the rationality of society as a whole can be gauged (Miller, 1994, p. 103). This is both a descriptive and a normative stance. On the basis of a strong description of the nature of modern societies, the weak normative conclusion is reached that action that fails to recognize system limits risks an evolutionarily reversal of rationalities differentiated in a long learning process. Luhmann's (1982) approach prioritizes, therefore, differentiation as an expression of societal development that constrains social action into system-conforming moulds. Habermas's position, while recognizing the explanatory value of the model of differentiation of systems theory, descriptively understands and normatively evaluates the development of modern society differently. In Habermas's account (Habermas 1993), actors in society are not simply helpless in the face of system's rationality but to some degree interrogate it, choose it, and sometimes change it in processes of deliberation. They do this within the discursive framework of the democratic order. This discursive framework is composed of networks of communication that range from procedurally well-ordered 'parliamentary' public spheres to procedurally diffuse but culturally innovative 'mass' public spheres. Political communication in these spheres subjects politically relevant decision-making to the test of deliberation. Norms generated by the communicative power of deliberation constrain systemically anchored complexes of power.

However, Habermas, as is well known, operates with a two-track model of societal reproduction emphasising emphasizing social and system integration respectively. His account of the interrelationship between the two types of integration allows considerable freedom for the functioning of 'formally organized' social systems, such as the economy and law, from the constraints imposed by communication in the moral and expressive domains of the lifeworldlife world. Moving between the different imperatives of system and lifeworldlife world, Habermas has sought over time a satisfactory middle-ground position between the critique of society and its immanent institutional and discursive potentials. The evolutionary moral developmentalism of the earlier Habermas is replaced by a more loosely-coupled and open relation to overall societal rationality, based on the overlapping and competing rationalities of a functional orientation to technical and economic rationality, a moral-normative orientation to social order and the reconciliation of conflict and an ethical orientation to expressive community-building involving designs for the good life and the interpretation of needs. The core of deliberative politics, in a descriptive sense, is how society's problem-solving capacities in each of these dimensions may be discursively and coherently mobilized so as to maintain a social and system integration that is not closed to further learning. From a normative perspective, in part realized in contemporary societies, it involves the further assumption that all citizens have participated in producing the given outcomes even if they do not absolutely agree on the final form. The functional, normative and expressive dimensions of deliberation are, according to Habermas, necessary for the continuation of a democratically ordered society in conditions of polycentric differentiation. Rational responsibility depends on 'strong', i.e., deliberatively responsive, democracy which is substantively and procedurally constantly evolving. From the perspective of grasping peripheral innovation, the mobilization of new kinds of identity expressing needs by collective actors on the periphery, may be understood as gradually penetrating, firstly, moral-normative discourses and, later, democratic and other functional arrangements, so that institutionalized political discourses and procedures can regulate the pace and direction of social change.

ii. inter-systemic coordination, deliberation and the public sphere

From the standpoint of Habermas's model of deliberative politics, Offe's call for reducing complexity can be interpreted in terms of the capacity of citizens to clarify what count as responsible and to impose this model on the operation of action systems. In Habermas's account, deliberative politics, in principle, offers the possibility of dealing with the problem of inter-system coordination and of reducing unmanageable complexity, not necessarily by confining the issue of responsibility within the horizons of single systems, but optionally also by improving the efficacy of the deliberative mechanisms that lie between systems. The deliberative model, in Habermas's formulation, leaves open Offe's options. It depends on the practical rationality of deliberating publics whether higher or lower levels of interdependency can be managed.

Habermas (1993, pp. 415-435; Willke, 1992) brings together the deliberative and system-theoretical approaches in his critical account of Willke's systems-theoretical model with its neo-Hegelian, neo-corporatist orientation. According to Habermas, Willke ascribes the role of supervision to the grey zones between state and society where phenomena such as round tables, concerted actions and coordination mechanisms of all kinds are located. Willke calls these phenomena symptomatic action systems. He can therefore follow Luhmann in postulating the disappearance of the primacy of the political system, while bringing the state back in through the backdoor as the guarantor of social integration. Social integration is thereby achieved by means of an account of state and societal power that does not include a clear moral-normative function for the public sphere about whose capacity to resonate across differentiated social systems the theory remains pessimistic. This theoretical stance has the effect of making peripheral demands for responsible action hard to conceive.

Habermas, by contrast, on the basis of a three-fold criticism of Willke's model, re-asserts the centrality of the public sphere as the medium in which norms of responsibility are defended or extended by a variety of publics engaged in public communication. He claims that, firstly, Willke's model illustrates how systems theory has lost the idea of a common world that was at the heart of Hobbes idea as to why individual interests should be coordinated. Systems theory is unable to escape from the multi-sided non-transparency of the relations between self-referencing, autopoietic social systems, ie, social systems that are autonomous, normatively closed and self-transforming under environmental stimulus. Such social systems need a kind of rule to integrate how they relate to one another. Firstly, systems theory is unable to provide this on the basis of its limiting assumption of the reciprocal observation of semantically closed systems disconnected from public discourse. This leans too much to understanding social integration as systems integration and fails to account for the power of the ethical and moral-normative dimensions of social integration that become influential through public discourse. Secondly, Habermas considers as merely contingent the normative idea advanced by Willke that individual rights are somehow served by the requisite level of differentiation between function systems. In fact, while the relation between differentiation and liberty is important, the efficiency and reproducability of function systems has to be normatively controlled by the counter-power of individual and collective claims emanating from the periphery directed against the danger of systems paternalism. Thirdly, Habermas disputes Willke's assumption that coordination between function systems can be seen only as a problem of expert shaping as this coordination also depends on the nature of the public sphere, where experts emanating from the function systems have to engage in discussion with counter-experts controlled by public opinion.

These criticisms of the inter-systemic coordination model of systems-theory lead back to Habermas's belief that various kinds of deliberation, operating through differentiated but interconnected public spheres, are necessary to inter-systemic rationality in complex, democratic societies. The mass public sphere offers the widest framework whereby democratic societies reflect upon themselves. In Habermas's sense, the public sphere represents the stage on which actors in the lifeworld community - individuals, collectives, organizations and associations - can call systemic complexes to order and establish new situation-interpreting cultural models that influence, to a greater or lesser, extent how differentiation should proceed. The institutionalization of communicative power in public spheres and parliamentary bodies provides a responsibility-demanding society with the means of influencing administrative and political decisions. This may vary widely depending on the system in question. Habermas notes the difference between the market system that is only indirectly connected to the lifeworld through the law, the educational and science system that stands between system and lifeworld, and the private, intimate sphere of the lifeworld itself. It will also depend on the character of political mobilization on the periphery, its structural presuppositions, its organization, its goals, and social, cultural and political opportunity structures that affect its capacity to gain influence within and across these functional domains.

iii. participation and the periphery

Notwithstanding his critique of the normative-participative limits of Willke's proposals for extending horizontal mechanisms for inter-systemic co-ordination, Habermas (1993) does not attempt to show how a deliberatively conceived popular sovereignty translates into stronger participative involvement in political decision-making. While he provides an account of how the cultural and associative horizons of the lifeworld influence political decision-making and thereby, indirectly, control administrative and systemic power, this does not translate into an account of how this power could be extended to make decision-making more participative. Habermas gestures towards but does not delve into such issues and therefore appears more concerned with a 'defensive' project of defending democratic norms than a ‘proactive’ one dedicated to their extension. Yet, the changing societal environment compels that such proactive projects must be at the core of the democracy critique of critical theory. This is the point of one of Bohman's central criticisms of his work (Bohman, 1994, pp. 923-926). Following Marx's criticism of Hegel's highly complex and mediated constitutional state, he claims that Habermas's account of popular sovereignty, separating opinion-formation which is a product of popular consensus from will-formation, the preserve of institutional actors, grants too much to social complexity and empties of real content the project of a further democratization of the political system that he intends to advance. Bohman claims, contra Habermas, that 'sovereignty cannot simply be dissolved into ‘anonymous’ communication networks or dispersed in civil society. It must be a political will not only with an indirect influence on institutions but also with real decision-making powers.' (id, p. 325)

But how can such political will, adding participation in decision-making and implementation to enhanced citizen powers of deliberation, be actualized? If modern politics, through existing institutional structures and agents, cannot generate the will to tackle certain problems such as acute environmental problems how can it be forced to do so"? This introduces the question of the innovation chances of peripheral actors and their themes of responsibility. Further, if Habermas is right in finding Willke's model of inter-systemic co-ordination achieved through horizontal forms of co-ordination too limited, can the deliberative postulates of Habermas's model find expression in institutional forms that, at one and the same time, improve co-ordination problems between action systems and between these systems and everyday life and that also enhance the participative power of citizens on the periphery. The issues of peripherally initiated will formation and the extension of democratic institutions in a participative direction combine in theoretical concerns with a creative theory of power and a flexible theory of institution formation. This involves the further move of progressing beyond concern for the differentiation and rationalization of action systems to addressing the role of conflict and agency in contemporary public spheres as mechanisms for internally re-shaping their institutional designs and practices and for guiding their possible inter-relation This requires adding an account of agents' projects as forces for the realization of the innovative potentialities present in structural and discursive contexts. The theoretical orientation of constitution theory draws attention to the mutual intertwining of heightened capacities for agency and the ‘reflexivity’ required by institutions.

Constitution theory: actors and the democratization of differentiationToC

According to Joas (1992, pp. 338-9) ‘constitution theory’ as represented in the writings of Giddens and Etzioni does not work with the rationalization model of Weber and Elias that suits differentiation theory but with the work of these theorists that emphasizes conflict and power. In this work, social order is presented as an asymmetrical and mostly unstable balance of power. Power is seen not only from the standpoint of given means but in a manner which echoes the writing of Foucault with the creative use of resources linking to the winning and losing of political authority. It is perceived as a component of processes of action and therefore loses its pseudo-substantial character of strong embedding in institutions or as a stable characteristic of acting in the power game. This implies that the practical concretization of culturally innovative norms and values, which substantially depends upon balances of power, require creativity, since the existence of binding values presupposes creative processes of value constitution through the mobilization of resources of power in the first place.

In constitution theory, therefore, the emphasis shifts from the social and systemic integration of society, the main emphasis of Habermas's most recent work, to the reciprocal interconnection of creative action and institutional change mediated through culture and power. From this standpoint, there is only so much that can be read off current institutional practices or immanent potentials. Instead, it has to be ascertained from the dynamics of action whether actor-carried projects for institutional transformation are forming and, if they are forming, what matrix of power and opportunity affects their prospects of introducing institutional change. This dynamic process, of course, occurs in contexts shaped by ongoing differentiation and rationalization processes.

Joas criticizes the constitution theorists’ account of democracy, however, for neglecting the relationship between the structural presuppositions of action in levels of differentiation and rationalization and the normative content they perceive in the actor-carried 'self-constitution' of society. He claims that 'self-constitution’ must be related both to the ideals of democracy and to empirically examining the norms and consequences underlying actual differentiation processes. The question of creative action which is contained in the idea of self-constitution, and of institutional context which is contained in the theory of differentiation and rationalization, come together in Joas's formula of the 'democratization of differentiation' which suggests that democratic self-constitution should regulate differentiation rather than the other way round. Democratizing differentiation, therefore, serves as a corrective to the apparent insolubility of the problems of democracy, diagnosed by Bobbio, by shifting the emphasis from the agency of ideals to the ideals, and institutional potentials, of agency.

Constitution theory tries to maintain a close relation to empirical changes. It charts the relationship between the expanding networks interweaving across space and time and a corresponding focus on mutable institutional complexes and their flexible interrelations in a manner that cannot be theoretically pre-decided. But this orientation needs to be turned to sustained analysis of ethically guided movements of the periphery, which are oriented to radical normative innovation, if the phrase democratization of differentiation is to have real meaning. The normative premises of constitution theory, no less than those of Offe and Habermas, while providing important pointers, are some way yet from posing the question of the institutionalization of peripheral innovation in a satisfactory fashion.


Today, there is a crisis in the functioning and legitimation of democratic institutions admitted on all sides. It is not sufficient in these circumstances either to disregard peripheral appeals for far-reaching re-evaluation of norms of responsibility, or to fail to recognize that the changing social environment of democracy requires further consideration of what could be achieved by extended participation. Critical social theory provides some normative orientations as to why peripheral themes, linking responsibility and participation, should become institutionally recognized. Processes of differentiation and instrumental rationalization require the counter-moment of institutional projects of democratization carried by peripheral social actors if they are not to blindly determine social life. The social theoretical perspective, including both systems and critical theory, recognizes the need for institutional adjustment, as does the actual practice of democracy expressed in neo-corporatist, judicial, and other ‘relief’ mechanisms, ie, supportive institutional innovations, for parliamentary democracy.

The implication of critical-theoretical accounts is that existing 'relief mechanisms' are not enough if both the substantive and procedural moments of innovation waves from the periphery are to be accommodated. The challenges flowing from the societal environment of democratic institutions are overwhelming their capacity to cope. While this articles does not address in-depth the precise nature of the democratic innovations that could assist the under-representation of the periphery in both public decision-making and in the defence and extension of public goods, attention may be drawn to some recent theoretical work, combining political scientific and social scientific approaches, which is providing some promising beginnings.

One example is Eder's (1995) concern with theoretically specifying what he understands as a new 'discursive' institutional form, which he relates to innovative procedures such as public inquiries, ‘concertationist’ planning bodies that bring together affected agents, mediation processes to resolve disputes and technology assessment. These institutions to some extent reflect the associative principles of the new mobilizations of civil society and respond to continuing protest potentials and legitimation problems over contemporary collective goods issues. In principle, these institutions serve as vehicles for the direct participation of the periphery in decision-making though, practically, participative principles in these contexts are often abridged by other considerations.

A second example comes from Kitchelt (1993) who argues that new movement politics should not be seen as tending towards incorporation into liberal-democratic or organized political models but, instead, may represent a revitalization of a third tradition, direct democracy, that is now becoming co-present with the other two. Kitchelt does not go into detail as to what a new direct, democratic politics could consist of though, in line with existing practices, it would function through symbolic contestation in public culture, unconventional protest actions, referenda, post-corporatist (Eder, 1995) negotiating forums, mediation mechanisms, new procedures of public decision-making, and a general increase in the power of local democracy. Kitchelt therefore envisages a plurality of decision modes within a differentiated polity, each specialized in different kinds of problem-solving, with a long-term social movement politics having an intermittently conflictual role, due to its freedom from the complex interdependencies of representative politics or the recurring, structured basis of the politics of interest intermediation. This bears at least some affinities with Burns’ idea of organic democracy (Burns, 1999, 2000). Such a possibility is enhanced by the 'double reference' of social movements to, on one side, influencing political decisions and policy regimes and, on the other, to changes in civil society itself. This double reference which is sustained by latent' social networks and nodes of communication gives social movements a distinct, participatory structure and explains their capacity for intermittent, yet high, political activism.

These examples mark a new frontier for critical, engaged social and political theory and research. This work will require combining descriptive accounts of states of affairs and normative accounts of injustice or irresponsibility with exploring potentials for institutional change and participative innovation that would advance hitherto excluded or under-represented themes from the periphery. It further requires a form of research and analysis that can deal equally with environmental variables such as differentiation and rationalization, on one side, and, on the other, the actual or potential mechanisms of institutional innovation. Conditions which apply to the success of this work is that it should, firstly, relate normative critique or proposals to empirical-theoretical syntheses; secondly, it should be interdisciplinary ranging across disciplinary boundaries and, especially, breaking down barriers between social and political theory that together share an interest in political mobilization and institutions; and, thirdly, it should develop the social theoretical contribution to the study of peripheral innovations and democratic change in a more unified manner, relating the levels of structural interdependencies, deliberative processes, and value constitution by agents in a more creative and compelling manner.


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