Monday, January 26, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
5. Nadia Urbinati: A Third Tradition of Anti-Partyism

Against the current: this would be my blurb for Nancy L. Rosenblum’s On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship, a fresh and bold attempt to subvert the “canonical” opposition to “parties as institutions and moral disdain for partisans” in the history of political thought. More than that, Rosenblum’s book is a timely and praiseworthy vindication of the value and uniqueness of democratic politics, the true Cinderella in contemporary democratic theory’s turn to cognitivism and the obsession with truth.

On the Side of the Angels wants to rescue “from futility” the positive role of political party “in the long history of antipartyism” that has marked the renaissance of democracy in modern world. Rosenblum reconstructs two “Glorious Traditions” of antipartyism: the holistic one and the pragmatic one. The former is radically hostile to pluralism; it can be either hierarchical and communitarian or egalitarian but is decisively anti-democratic (the Platonist tradition and reactionary tradition, from Rousseau to de Maistre fit this description). The latter is instead realist in accepting social pluralism but still resilient in justifying partisanship (Hume and Madison fit this description). Few are the modern authors on the side of the angels; among them Burke, Hegel, Tocqueville, and moreover John Stuart Mill who, although did not praise parties, grasped the dialectics of opposite visions of society (Progressive and Conservative) in representative government. We owe Mill the point that “without party rivalry, ‘trial by discussion’ cannot be meaningful,” writes Rosenblum. Developing from Mill’s proto-partytism, Rosenblum offers two strong and persuasive arguments in defense of partisan politics: that parties shape political conflict as no other collective actors can do, and that their decline or even absence in contemporary democracy signals a crisis of democratic politics.

I would propose to integrate Rosenblum’s two antiparty traditions with a third one: the myth of the unpolitical and even the anti-political. Whereas the former two traditions belonged to or were born from within a pre-democratic society, this new antiparty tradition is instead the offspring of a mature democratic society, and the expression of contemporary democratic theory. Strain of politicization is not new to critics of democracy. Beginning with early nineteenth century and as a reaction against the political process of emancipation started with the French revolution, it crossed the works of several generations of communitarians, anti-rationalists and anti-egalitarians. Burke and de Maistre, the founding fathers of modern anti-democracy, were critical of popular assemblies mainly because elections dethroned competence and virtue from politics and made the latter an arena of competing interests, in which all issues became relative in value and subjected to the volatile opinion of numerical majorities.

Yet contemporary’s strain of partisanship is more intriguing than the traditional anti-democratic lamentation because is made in the name of, not against democracy’s values. Criticism of democracy’s vocation to engender partisanship is to be found in Philip Pettit’s work and, although to a lesser degree, in Pierre Rosanvallon’s. Democratic institutions (a “system whereby the collective will of the people rules,” Pettit writes) are fueled by the “politics of passion” to narrow which proponents of unpolitical democracy see only one remedy: containing politics altogether while expanding deliberative fora and committees of experts, and moreover instituting adversarial practices of judicial contestation, solutions that are not democratic in character because not based on majority rule. From here comes, Rosanvallon has argued, “the growing importance we must recognize to the development of new modes of intermediary structuring of actions of surveillance by means of militant yet not partisan organizations.”

In contemporary democracy, the working force against partisanship is thus judgment, a faculty that plays a negative role, as that of monitoring and censuring. Judgment acquired momentum in the second half of the twenty-century, in coincidence with the consolidation of constitutional democracy, the technological revolution of the means of information and communication, and the expansion of civil society, domestically and globally. In representative democracy, the actor of negative politics is not the citizen-elector but the citizen-judge through an uninterrupted work of public scrutiny that is and remains informal although extremely influential. Judgment is the site of counter-politics; is located in civil political society as a permanent work of evaluation and criticism of politique politisée.

Yet the citizen-judge wants to make power more transparent and impartial, not more affordable or widespread. Unlike with the citizen-elector or the political participant, the goal of the citizen-judge is to devise institutions and rules that can in the long run make political participation less needed and thus partisanship less pronounced and relevant. Apathy seems to be the final outcome of this new trend of democratic antipartitism and antipartisanship. In Rosenblum’s words, the strategy of contemporary political philosophers “to sever deliberation from partisanship” is primed to foster an attitude that is inimical to democracy, which is unavoidably political because makes all issues an object of public talk and all values a matter of opinion.

Works cited:

Philip Pettit, “Depoliticizing Democracy”, Ratio Juris, 17 (March 2004): 52-65.

Philip Pettit, “Deliberative Democracy, the Discursive Dilemma, and Republican Theory,” in Debating Deliberative Democracy, ed. James S. Fishkin et Peter Laslett, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003.

Pierre Rosanvallon, La contre-démocratie. La politique à l’âge de la défiance. Paris: Seuil, 2006.

Nadia Urbinati

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