The critique of modern democracy. Alternatives: participatory approach


Логика и философия

In modern world we can often here such an expression as “democratical processes”. In general it is used with undoubted positive illumination, promoted like panacea in the field of political organization of the society.



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The critique of modern democracy. Alternatives: participatory approach.

If this world is going right, than what a hell is going on?

(author unknown)

In modern world we can often here such an expression as “democratical processes”. In general it is used with undoubted positive illumination, promoted like panacea in the field of political organization of the society. But is this good so good? Actually, some have doubts, which are based on observing different aspects of reality: economical, political, or even ecological. From this observation a strange feeling appears, which can be expressed by the epigraph above. In this essay I’ll try to generalize the critique of modern democracy: its ability to deal effectively within modern world and its claims for the best road to the welfare, free and fair future. But to be constructive, I’ll also generalize the existing theoretical and practical democratic alternatives.

First of all – what does “democracy” mean? Dahl, for example, defines democracy as 'selection of top officials in free and fair elections, extensive freedom of expression, wide access to alternative and independent sources of information, rights to form relatively independent associations and organizations, including political parties entitled to compete in elections, and an inclusive electorate’1. It is an idea of democracy or its ideal level and it sounds rather good.

But if to examine the implementation of this idea closer, some essential paradoxes appear.

 Paradox 1: tyranny of majority instead of tyranny. If the main inner instrument of democracy is election, does its implementation gives the equal influence on social development to all members of the society? It surely does not, because it directly ignores the will of those, who prefer another choice from this or that reason. One may argue that what is good for the majority – is better for the society in general. But what about Hitler’s fair election? And the question is not only/even about the effectiveness of will’s implementation, but (also) about if it is real equality or just the formula “chose the side of majority and be heard or chose the side of minority and be ignored”.

 Paradox 2: representations that does not represent. Even if ignore the weak sides of elections as an instrument of choosing the chosen, does the elected person represent interests of its electors? An answer can be found in the clichй which pretend to portrait an image of modern decision-maker: “white rich able-bodied and heterosexual man”. I suppose that this portrait is not adequate to describe the electoral majority in most cases. Especially the second (economical) characteristic, which also appears to be the most important source of segregation in modern capitalistic world. And as far as this criteria strongly divide persons into different groups, which have their own social (political, economical) interest, can a person from one (rather small) group express the interests of other (comparatively large) groups? One may argue, that representatives can implement those interests as far as he/she is only an instrument. But he/she is for sure not. In practice this person can easily implement personal interests or (what is even worse) interest of his/her own socio-economical group.

 Paradox 3: LVcracy2 instead of democracy. While studying modern political reality, one should remember, that its formula is often supposed to work with a component of so-called “free” or “liberal” economy. The beginning of such an economical conception was “Washington Consensus”3, through which the main ideas of liberal economy were expressed. This conception got a lot of critique as one, which protects the rights of transnational capital and enlarges the gap between “developed” and “developing” / “undeveloped” countries; which liberate capital and makes it the first ruler in globalizing world4. Noam Chomsky, one of the main critic of modern democracy from this point of view says: “Now, under capitalism we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control5.

This is the brief and the most general ideas of critique of modern democracy. To conclude with critique, one can notice, that in both instrumental implementation and “shadow” side of political reality those paradoxes can lead to negative effects. To my mind, the main effects are:

  •  partial indifference of ordinary people in some Western democratic countries (decline of attendance of the elections, decline of social capital);
  •  effect “impossibility of democracy in one separate part of the world” – here I mean that some positive processes, which are common for “developed” countries, do not automatically become positive to less developed mainly because of those “Liberal Values”, which make (or even enlarge) a gap in economical and social development6.

So are there any democratic (in its idea) alternatives? Further I’ll try to make a briefly overview of them.

In general theorists and practitioners of socio-political alternatives propose such main options7 to improve modern democracy:

  •  Consensus and participatory decision-making instead of voting. This may overcome the tyranny of majority and power alienation by the means of consensus and political education (to stimulate ordinary people’ participation).
  •  Multi-levels and rotational representation: representatives should be chosen by consensus, starting from the level of local communities and should be rotated comparatively rapidly (to decentralize and the decision-making process and to make it more independent from particular persons).
  •  Economical reformation. As far as the vast majority of critics are left, they support the idea of alterglobalization: to overcome the power of transnational capital as the main ruler. The alternatives are different, but most of them support the idea of community, social (partial or full) property and so on.

One may argue, that such global reformation of existent world order is impossible – is looks like utopia, even if started from separate state. But the first two options are being rather effectively implemented by alterglobalists: in organisation of their movement8 (partly) and in world social forums9 (at all).

So, we can see, that modern democracy is criticized as a conception and as implementation. Its idea sounds rather good, but the reality gives a lot of paradoxes, which I’ve tried to summarise first of all. I suppose, that we should accept the idea of modern democracy with criticism, as it is accepted so by lots of theorists and practitioners. Actually, partly this critique gave birth to the most numeral and transnational movement in the history of the humanity, which is also led by motto of implementing alternative democratic projects. The main ideas of those alternative projects I’ve tried to summarize also. I’d like to conclude with one more quotation of Noam Chomsky: “Personally I'm in favour of democracy, which means that the central institutions in the society have to be under popular control (…) I think that until major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it's pointless to talk about democracy”

1 I. Nagle J. D., Mahr A. Studying democracy and democratization: conflicting views // Democracy and Democratization: Post-Communist Europe in Comparative Perspective / J. D. Nagle and A. Mahr. – London: Sage Publications, 1999. – p. 11-12.

2 LV – “liberal values” – money (youth slang, for example see http://www.jargon.ru/slova.php?id=65264&cat=288)

3 WILLIAMSON, John. Did the Washington Consensus Fail? Washington, DC: The Peterson Institute for International Economics, Outline of speech at the Center for Strategic & International Studies November 6, 2002 (http://www.iie.com/publications/papers/paper.cfm?ResearchID=488)

4Anarchism: Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Dobereiner, John Hess, Doug Richardson & Tom Woodhull // C. P. Otero (ed.), Language and Politics, Black Rose, 1988, pp. 166-196, January, 1974 (http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/197401--.htm)   

5 One Man's View: Noam Chomsky interviewed by an anonymous interviewer // Business Today, May, 1973, pp. 13-15 (http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/197305--.htm)

6 for statistics see Global Village Project (http://media2.guzer.com/animations/100_people.swf)

7 for example, see Naomi Klein. Reclaiming the commons // New Left Review 9, May-June 2001 (http://www.newleftreview.org/A2323)

8 Della Porta D., Andretta M., Mosca L., Reiter H. Globalization from Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks.– Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.– P. 61-91

9 Seoane J., Taddei E. From Seattle to Porto Alegre: The Anti-Neoliberal Globalization Movement // Current Sociology.– 2002.– Vol. 50.– № 1.– P. 99-122


Immanuel Wallerstein. New Revolts Against the System // New Left Review 18, November-December 2002 (



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