French sociologist, Alain Touraine is director of studies and director of the Centre for Sociological Analysis and Intervention (CADIS) at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, Paris. Among his works published in English are Return of the Actor (1985) and The Voice and the Eye: The Analysis of Social Movements (1981).
What is democracy?
By Alain Touraine
Democracy these days is more commonly defined in negative terms, as freedom from arbitrary actions, the personality cult or the rule of a nomenklatura, than by reference to what it can achieve or the social forces behind it. What are we celebrating today? The downfall of authoritarian regimes or the triumph of democracy? And we think back and remember that popular movements which over threw anciens régimes have given rise to totalitarian regimes practising state terrorism.
So we are initially attracted to a modest, purely liberal concept of democracy, defined negatively as a regime in which power cannot be taken or held against the will of the majority. Is it not enough of an achievement to rid the planet of all regimes not based on the free choice of government by the governed? Is this cautious concept not also the most valid, since it runs counter both to absolute power based on tradition and divine right, and also to the voluntarism that appeals to the people's interests and rights and then, in the name of its liberation and independence, imposes on it military or ideological mobilization leading to the repression of all forms of opposition?
This negative concept of democracy and freedom, expounded notably by Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, is convincing because the main thing today is to free individuals and groups from the stifling control of a governing élite speaking on behalf of the people and the nation. It is now impossible to defend an antiliberal concept of democracy, and there is no longer any doubt that the so-called "people's democracies" were dictatorships imposed on peoples by political leaders relying on foreign armies. Democracy is a matter of the free choice of government, not the pursuit of "popular" policies.
In the light of these truths, which recent events have made self-evident, the following question must be asked. Freedom of political choice is a prerequisite of democracy, but is it the only one? Is democracy merely a matter of procedure? In other words, can it be defined without reference to its ends, that is to the relationships it creates between individuals and groups? At a time when so many authoritarian regimes are collapsing, we also need to examine the content of democracy although the most urgent task is to bear in mind that democracy cannot exist without freedom of political choice.
The collapse of the revolutionary illusion
Revolutions sweep away an old order: they do not create democracy. We have now emerged from the era of revolutions, because the world is no longer dominated by tradition and religion, and because order has been largely replaced by movement. We suffer more from the evils of modernity than from those of tradition. Liberation from the past interests us less and less; we are more and more concerned about the growing totalitarian power of the new modernizers. The worst disasters and the greatest injury to human rights now stem not from conservative despotism but from modernizing totalitarianism.
We used to think that social and national revolutions were necessary prerequisites for the birth of new democracies, which would be social and cultural as well as political. This idea has become unacceptable. The end of our century is dominated by the collapse of the revolutionary illusion, both in the late capitalist countries and in the former colonies.
But if revolutions move in a direction diametrically opposed to that of democracy, this does not mean that democracy and liberalism necessarily go together. Democracy is as far removed from liberalism as it is from revolution, for both liberal and revolutionary regimes, despite their differences, have one principle in common: they both justify political action because it is consistent with natural logic.
Revolutionaries want to free social and national energies from the shackles of the capitalist profit motive and of colonial rule. Liberals call for the rational pursuit of interests and satisfaction of needs. The parallel goes even further. Revolutionary regimes subject the people to "scientific" decisions by avant-garde intellectuals, while liberal regimes subject it to the power of entrepreneurs and of the "enlightened" classes the only ones capable of rational behaviour, as the French statesman Guizot thought in the nineteenth century.
But there is a crucial difference between these two types of regime. The revolutionary approach leads to the establishment of an all-powerful central authority controlling all aspects of social life. The liberal approach, on the other hand, hastens the functional differentiation of the various areas of life politics, religion, economics, private life and art. This reduces rigidity and allows social and political conflict to develop which soon restricts the power of the economic giants.
But the weakness of the liberal approach is that by yoking together economic modernization and political liberalism it restricts democracy to the richest, most advanced and best-educated nations. In other words, elitism in the international sphere parallels social elitism in the national sphere. This tends to give a governing elite of middle-class adult men in Europe and America enormous power over the rest of the world over women, children and workers at home, as well as over colonies or dependent territories.
One effect of the expanding power of the world's economic centres is to propagate the spirit of free enterprise, commercial consumption and political freedom. Another is a growing split within the world's population between the central and the peripheral sectors the latter being not that of the subject peoples but of outcasts and marginals. Capital, resources, people and ideas migrate from the periphery and find better employment in the central sector.
The liberal system does not automatically, or naturally, become democratic as a result of redistribution of wealth and a constantly rising standard of general social participation. Instead, it works like a steam engine, by virtue of a big difference in potential between a hot pole and a cold pole. While the idea of class war, often disregarded nowadays, no longer applies to post-revolutionary societies, it still holds good as a description of aspects of liberal society that are so basic that the latter cannot be equated with democracy.
The twilight of social democracy
This analysis is in apparent contradiction with the fact that social democracy developed in the most capitalist countries, where there was a considerable redistribution of income as a result of intervention by the state, which appropriated almost half the national income and in some cases, especially in the Scandinavian countries, even more.
The main strength of the social democratic idea stems from the link it has forged between democracy and social conflict, which makes the working-class movement the main drivingforce in building a democracy, both social and political. This shows that there can be no democracy unless the greatest number subscribes to the central principles of a society and culture but also no democracy without fundamental social conflicts.
What distinguishes the democratic position from both the revolutionary and the liberal position is that it combines these two principles. But the social democratic variant of these principles is now growing weaker, partly because the central societies are emerging from industrial society and entering post-industrial society or a society without a dominant model, and partly because we are now witnessing the triumph of the international market and the weakening of state intervention, even in Europe.
So Swedish social democracy, and most parties modelled on social democracy, arc anxiously wondering what can survive of the policies constructed in the middle of the century. In some countries the trade union movement has lost much of its strength and many of its members. This is particularly true in France, the United States and Spain, but also in the United Kingdom to say nothing of the excommunist countries, where trade unions long ago ceased to be an independent social force. In nearly all countries trade unionism is moving out of the industrial workplace and turning into neocorporatism, a mechanism for protecting particular professional interests within the machinery of the state: and this leads to a backlash in the form of wild-cat strikes and the spread of parallel ad hoc organizations.
So we come to the most topical question about democracy: if it presupposes both participation and conflict, but if its social-democratic version is played out, what place does it occupy today? What is the specific nature of democratic action, and what is the "positive" content of democracy? In answering these questions we must first reject any single principle: we must equate human freedom neither with the universalism of pragmatic reason (and hence of interest) nor with the culture of a community. Democracy can neither be solely liberal nor completely popular.
Unlike revolutionary historicism and liberal utilitarianism, democratic thinking today starts from the overt and insurmountable conflict between the two faces of modern society. On the one hand is the liberal face of a continually changing society, whose efficiency is based on the maximization of trade, and on the circulation of money, power, and information. On the other is the opposing image, that of a human being who resists market forces by appealing to subjectivity the latter meaning both a desire for individual freedom and also a response to tradition, to a collective memory. A society free to arbitrate between these two conflicting demands that of the free market and that of individual and collective humanity, that of money and that of identity may be termed democratic.
The main difference as compared with the previous stage, that of social democracy and the industrial society, is that the terms used are much further apart than before. We are now concerned not with employers and wage-earners, associated in a working relationship, but with subjectivity and the circulation of symbolic goods.
These terms may seem abstract, but they are no more so than employers and wage-earners. They denote everyday experiences for most people in the central societies, who are aware that they live in a consumer society at the same time as in a subjective world. But it is true that these conflicting facets of people's lives have not so far found organized political expression just as it took almost a century for the political categories inherited from the French Revolution to be superseded by the class categories specific to industrial society. It is this political time-lag that so often compels us to make do with a negative definition of democracy.
Democracy is neither purely participatory nor purely liberal. It above all entails arbitrating, and this implies recognition of a central conflict between tendencies as dissimilar as investment and participation, or communication and subjectivity. This concept can be adapted to the most affluent post-industrializing countries and to those which dominate the world system; but does it also apply to the rest of the world, to the great majority of the planet?
A negative reply would almost completely invalidate the foregoing argument. But in Third World countries today arbitration must first and foremost find a way between exposure to world markets (essential because it determines competitiveness) and the protection of a personal and collective identity from being devalued or becoming an arbitrary ideological construct.
Let us take the example of the Latin American countries, most of which fall into the category of intermediate countries. They are fighting hard and often successfully to regain and then increase the share of world trade they once possessed. They participate in mass culture through consumer goods, television programmes, production techniques and educational programmes. But at the same time they are reacting against a crippling absorption into the world economic, political and cultural system which is making them increasingly dependent. They are trying to be both universalist and particularist, both modern and faithful to their history and culture.
Unless politics manages to organize arbitration between modernity and identity, it cannot fulfil the first prerequisite of democracy, namely to be representative. The result is a dangerous rift between grass-roots movements seeking to defend the individuality of communities, and political parties, which are no more than coalitions formed to achieve power by supporting a candidate.
The main difference between the central countries and the peripheral ones is that in the former a person is defined primarily in terms of personal freedom, but also as a consumer, whereas in the latter the defence of collective identity may still be more important, to the extent that there is pressure from abroad to impose some kind of bloodless revolution in the form of compulsory modernization on the pattern of other countries.
This conception of democracy as a process of arbitration between conflicting components of social life involves something more than the idea of majority government. It implies above all recognition of one component by another, and of each component by all the others, and hence an awareness both of the similarities and the differences between them. It is this that most sharply distinguishes the "arbitral" concept from the popular or revolutionary view of democracy, which so often carries with it the idea of eliminating minorities or categories opposed to what is seen as progress.
In many parts of the world today there is open warfare between a kind of economic modernization which disrupts the fabric of society, and attachment to beliefs. Democracy cannot exist so long as modernization and identity are regarded as contradictory in this way. Democracy rests not only on a balance or compromise between different forces, but also on their partial integration. Those for whom progress means making a clean sweep of the past and of tradition are just as much the enemies of democracy as those who see modernization as the work of the devil. A society can only be democratic if it recognizes both its unity and its internal conflicts.
Hence the crucial importance, in a democratic society, of the law and the idea of justice, defined as the greatest possible degree of compatibility between the interests involved. The prime criterion of justice is the greatest possible freedom for the greatest possible number of actors. The aim of a democratic society is to produce and to. respect the greatest possible amount of diversity, with the participation of the greatest possible number in the institutions and products of the community.