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Can a plausible case be made for participatory democracy under modern conditions?

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Can a plausible case be made for participatory democracy under modern conditions? The 'classical' theory of democracy, such as that advocated by Rousseau in the Social Contract and traditionally held as adopted by the citizens of Ancient Greece, arose from a vision of democracy as a fully participatory system, a system in which the citizens would gather together to rule in a sovereign assembly and, hence, each member would be able to contribute directly and equally to the political decision-making. This system of participation was thought to comprise the only true democratic system, allowing each their own voice and influence over political affairs. The 'classical' view of a fully participatory democracy differs to a large extent then from what we currently take to be democratic systems in the modern world and differs still from the 18th century conception of a democratic method as that institutional arrangement whereby political decisions are made in order to realise the common good. On in which the people themselves decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble and carry out the 'will of the people'. Both the 18th century idea and our modern practices of democracy then do call for participation, but only at a certain level. It is usually only in such times as election of a government or representative, or in times of referendum, when direct participation of the citizens is called for. That this is the level at which participation in a modern democratic system should remain is argued for a number of reasons. ...read more.


For either we are proposing all governments be fully participatory, in which case all governments would need to exist as small, autonomous units like town governments, or we allow some governments to be participatory and let some, those of a greater size, remain representative systems or polyarchies. In either case, however, we will have to expect similar probable outcomes to ensue. Reflecting on the history of mankind, we will have to accept arguments for the natural human tendency towards aggression and empire, to the result that some societies will inevitably expand and begin to dominate others. Such consequences would result in societies too large to sustain participatory democracy and once again we would have to resort to some form of representative government or polyarchic system. Perhaps we might think that, in an effort to avoid this seemingly inevitable result, we could construct alliances between these small, autonomous states to prevent the spread of empires and resulting expansion of societies. But again we could only expect a similar result; the creation of states too large to support a fully participatory system. Some form of representation then seems to be the only way to retain a democratic system. This, although not as perfectly democratic as the 'classical' theorist demands, would allow for a society as democratic as it feasibly can be. That some theories of democracy place unrealistic demands on the citizens of democratic systems is an objection faced not only by the 'classical' theory but also by the general 18th century conception of democracy. ...read more.


The answer to this question is claimed by Cole to be found in industry. In industry, he argues, we are at most points involved in certain relationships of 'superiority and subordination' and this system is then reflected in our political institutions - as he claims: 'the servile system of industry reflects itself in political servility'. In order then to develop the necessary 'democratic character' that citizens might experience no conflict, as it were, between their private and public interests, we must somehow find a way to equalise the status of the citizens; industry must, in effect, become participatory. Once this occurs, developing along with it the 'democratic character' of the citizens, a participatory system can be self-sustaining. This perhaps provides us with a possible method through which modern society could be altered to accommodate a participatory system, presuming we could, in fact, democratise industrial authority structures in such a way. But even if we could provide evidence to support this proposes link between equal participation in the workplace and equal participation at a political level, this would not be modern society on the conditions under which it currently exists. If we are asking whether a plausible case can be made for participatory democracy under modern conditions as they are, then surely the answer must be that it cannot. For the impracticalities and unrealistic demands of a fully participatory system would suggest that it could not be successfully implemented in our modern societies and its threat of instability renders it is an unlikely possible system to be adopted under modern conditions. Melissa Gibson 1 ...read more.

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