John Dewey and the Theory of Democracy Today
Not least as a result of the temporal coincidence of the fall of the Soviet empire and the Western debate on communitarianism, efforts to elucidate the normative foundations of democracy have increased worldwide in recent years. However, wherever an attempt was made to link up with the tradition of radical democracy--as demarcated from the liberal understanding of politics--the discussion quickly got on the confrontational track of republicanism versus proceduralism.(1) Today, these key terms ordinarily designate two normative models of democracy whose common goal it is to give democratic will formation a greater role than is usual in political liberalism. Instead of limiting the participatory activity of citizens to the function of periodically legitimating the state's exercise of power, their activity is to be a permanent matter embodied in the democratic public sphere and should be understood as the source of all political decision-making processes.(2)
For all the common ground in their critique of liberalism, differences nonetheless exist between the two models. These follow from the different ways in which the principle of the democratic public sphere is normatively justified in each case. Whereas republicanism takes its orientation from antiquity's ideal of a citizenry for whose members the intersubjective negotiation of common affairs has become an essential part of their lives, proceduralism insists that what is needed to reactivate the process of democratic will formation is not citizens' virtues but simply morally justified procedures. In the former, the democratic public sphere is thus regarded as the medium of a self-governing political community; in the latter, it is regarded as the procedure with whose help society attempts to solve political problems rationally in a legitimate manner.(3)
As Jurgen Habermas has made clear, this central difference in the concept of the political public sphere is accompanied by further differences concerning the relation between the state and law.(4) The tradition of republicanism assumes there is a solidary citizenry that is in a position to organize society itself through processes of communicative consultation and negotiation; therefore, state politics itself can be grasped here only as the implementation of publicly negotiated programs. The government and the parliament are no longer autonomous institutions of the state subject to specific guidelines, but the institutional spearhead of the progressively rejuvenating communication process that has its real center in the citizens' democratic public sphere.(5) By contrast, according to the proceduralist conception, state institutions have to form a legally bound but independent subsystem because the widely branching communication structures of the public sphere do not at all possess the kind of political power by which universally binding decisions can be made. Rather, here, in preparliamentary space, public opinion is to be formed through the exchange of arguments and convictions. Public opinion programs decision-making in those institutions of the state administration that on the strength of democratic procedures have to guarantee the social presuppositions for the continued existence of the democratic public sphere.(6)
Despite their fragmentary quality, these references also indicate the necessary difference between the two approaches in their respective conceptions of law. Political republicanism has by nature a certain tendency to understand legal norms as the social instrument through which the political community attempts to preserve its own identity. According to the proceduralist conviction, basic rights represent a kind of guarantee for the continued existence of the interplay of the democratic public sphere and political administration. For the former, law is the crystallized expression of the particular self-understanding of a solidary citizenry; for the latter, it represents statesanctioned but morally legitimated precautionary measures to protect the democratic procedure in its entire complexity.(7)
Now, this plump contrast of two models of radical democracy has dominated the political-philosophical discussion in recent years, but for all its fruitfulness, it has also had a negative effect: It frequently appears that these two concepts exhaust the spectrum of alternatives that present themselves today in the attempt to renew and expand democratic principles. However, more than merely two radically democratic alternatives to political liberalism can be found, as I would like to show by reconstructing John Dewey's theory of democracy.(8) My claim that it is Dewey who presents a third path may appear surprising. Dewey is claimed by both sides as a theoretical predecessor. It is not difficult for political republicanism to refer to elements of Dewey's theory of democracy because it is similarly based on the idea of an integration of all citizens in a self-organizing community.(9) Nor does the proceduralist theory of democracy have any difficulties in relying on Dewey, for his emphasis on rational procedures of problem-solving is far more extensive than in other models of the political public sphere.(10) Accordingly, my claim that Dewey's theory of democracy contains a third alternative to the liberal understanding of politics must demonstrate the inappropriateness of the other two claims. I will show indirectly that each touches only one of the two sides of Dewey's theory. They thus miss Dewey's synthesis into a single conception, which constitutes the real point of his position. Of course, to be able to understand how Dewey simultaneously conceives of reflexive procedures and political community and how he combines the idea of democratic deliberation with the notion of community ends, I will need first to elucidate the premise that sharply distinguishes his from others' versions of a theory of democracy. In his endeavor to justify principles of an expanded democracy, Dewey, in contrast to republicanism and to democratic proceduralism, takes his orientation not from the model of communicative consultation but from the model of social cooperation. In brief: because Dewey wishes to understand democracy as a reflexive form of community cooperation, he is able to bring together the two opposing positions of current democratic theory.
In part I, I present the theory of democracy of the early Dewey, in which the idea of proceeding from the sphere of social cooperation is already beginning to become evident. However, while still depending largely on Hegel and, in surprising concordance, with the early Marx, the idea of democratic self-administration here is so immediately derived from the premise of a cooperative division of labor that the central sphere of politically establishing communicative freedom is strangely excluded. In part II, I would like to show how Dewey, in the wake of his epistemological studies, gradually arrives at the proceduralist conception of the democratic public sphere that can be found in a more mature form in his book The Public and Its Problems. What is primarily of interest today in this mature model is the fact that the procedures of democratic will formation are grasped as the rational means with which a cooperatively integrated society attempts to solve its own problems. Finally, in part III, by elaborating the internal connection between cooperation and democracy, I can introduce Dewey's conception into the current debate. I would therefore like to conclude by showing that Dewey's mature model of democracy represents not just an alternative but is superior to the approaches predominating today.
The core of all radical democratic objections leveled against liberalism's understanding of democracy has referred to its negative, individualist conception of personal freedom.(11) Whether in Marx and the socialist tradition or in Tocqueville's heirs and the adherents of republicanism, the central argument has always been that in the liberal understanding of the formation of the democratic, political will could be reduced to the function of periodically legitimating state action. Here the subject is understood as previously furnished with a certain amount of individual freedom; and if the personal autonomy of the individual is understood as independent of the processes of social integration, this entails the following normative conclusion: The political activity of citizens must consist primarily in the regular control of a state apparatus whose essential task must, for its part, be the protection of their individual liberties. In contrast to this reductionist understanding of democratic participation, the various traditions that have developed as alternatives to liberalism in the past 200 years begin with a different, a communicative, concept of human freedom. From the evidence that the individual's freedom is dependent upon communicative relations, these traditions have inferred an expanded understanding of democratic will formation. Each individual citizen is now understood as attaining personal autonomy only in association with all others. Thus, the participation of all citizens in political decision-making is not merely the means by which each individual can secure her personal freedom for herself alone; rather, what it articulates is the fact that it is only in the medium of an …