Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Radical Democracy:
A Contested/ing Terrain

by Kate Sandilands, York University, Toronto

Not that long ago, during a discussion of university teaching, a friend of mine posed an interesting question: "who," he asked, "is your ideal student?" After some thought, I replied something like this: one who has understood the course materials in relation to her own experiences of the world; one who has considered the validity of these course materials, challenged them, and found them to be inadequate on their own; one who has formulated her own, independent analysis of the world and her own position within it, and has found that these, also, are not complete.

Upon further reflection, I found that this "ideal student" closely resembles my vision of an "ideal citizen" in a radical democracy. Substitute "common good" for "course materials" in the above description, and see what happens. To me, this similarity underscores the relationship between education and democracy. Not only should education (formal and informal) foster the types of awareness, empowerment, and participation that are crucial to active, democratic citizenship, but the processes of democracy themselves should be educative, dynamic, and ongoing. In this context, universities need to be both sites of education for democracy and sites, themselves, of democracy.

Clearly, this is no small task. The distance between what universities are now, and what they might be, is as great as the distance between what Bush and Mulroney (and, almost certainly, Clinton) claim as "democracy" and what we might envision. But "vision" (not necessarily "utopia") is a crucial part of our transformative project; without it, we are left with a series of practices devoid of the dynamism of a future orientation. Crucial though they may be, "techniques" for democratization, or floor plans for the forum, do not a radical democracy make.

...what counts as the we, what counts as citizenship, is always already subject to change through the very process of democratization....

It is my contention that this "visionary" moment is central to the project of radical democracy and radical citizenship, as it appears in formal education and elsewhere. So my contribution begins with this question: what is the radical democracy, and the radical citizenship, we are trying to foster? Beyond specific practices, beyond "techniques" to bridge the gap between present and future, what is the shape of our project?

The OED defines democracy as "government by the people," and radical as, among other things, "affecting the foundation, going to the root." We could thus argue that our vision of radical democracy begins in a space that combines these concepts: government going to the root. This definition may seem vague, but I would argue that it captures something quite complex, something that often gets "lost" in many discussions of democracy, namely, the "double-movement" that sets radical democracy apart from other versions.

First, radical democracy is, clearly and crucially, government by the root, by "the people." Although there are a number of different ways of thinking about "the people," I would argue that radical democracy understands "the people" to be constituted through diverse experiences, needs, and desires as both individuals and members of communities. Thus, radical democracy is a form of politics that recognizes diversity, and invites participation from a variety of social spaces. But radical democracy does not simply "represent" this plurality, as if "diversity" were a static enumeration of "who" people are; rather, it fosters the continual proliferation of new voices, new communities, and new identities, as part of an ongoing process of democratization. What this means is the recognition that many struggles are "democratic."

At the same time as radical democracy recognizes and fosters plurality, however, it also acts to define some common terrain in which this diversity can converse, and from which this diversity can be fostered. Thus, radical democracy is also government of the root, affecting "the people," constituting them as citizens. It is a form of politics that constructs a "we": at the very least a common language of discussion, but importantly, an articulation of something common. Thus, radical democracy is not simply a matter of fostering participation from more and more different communities; it also constitutes these people as citizens, as members of a democracy in addition to being members of specific groups. What this means is the recognition that "many" struggles are democratic.

The delightful paradox is that what counts as the "we," what counts as "citizenship," is always already subject to change through the very process of democratization, the continual inclusion of new voices to challenge the adequacy of any existing enumeration. In other words, "democracy" is never captured (Slavoj Zizek might call it a "sublime object": something desired but never attainable). There is, instead, a continual motion between proliferating democratic struggles and their constitution as struggles of citizenship.

This dual agenda with its inherent dynamism is, I think, the core of any radically democratic project. What we have, in essence, is a recognition of the contingency of diversity and commonality. In a radical democracy, it is precisely the double-movement between proliferation of specificities and constitution of a "we" that defines its difference from other versions of democracy: neither the universal nor the particular is sacred.

On the one hand, we cannot say that "the common good" overrides the needs of particular communities. In fact, "the common" is always a fictitious representation of an impossible wholeness: its construction is always based on some particular representation, and new voices continually challenge just how "common" that representation is. This process is evidenced by the numerous challenges posed by contemporary social movements to the notion of a generic, political "citizen" (read: white, male, economically privileged, heterosexual, middle-aged, able-bodied, etc.). The contestation of this "universal" shows its origins in a very specific body.

The double-movement of radical democracy, then, lies in its ability to "democratize" the process of competition, and to simultaneously create a public moment of "commonality" in which this competition is possible.

On the other hand, we also cannot say that the particular exists apart from some notion of the whole. To put it bluntly, social and political life is not simply a proliferation of absolute "differences." Rather, specificity and particular "group identities" are the result of historical enunciation, referred always to some idea of "the universal" (e.g., liberty, equality, autonomy, self-determination, etc.). To take up the proliferating challenges to "generic political citizen" once again, we see that the arguments are based not just on an agenda of "showing" the actual particularity of this category, but on coming up with a new version of "citizenship" to include a broader spectrum of possibilities.

Much of this vision is based strongly on recent articles by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. To continue Laclau's thread, I would thus see "the universal" and "the particular" as contingent (unbridgeable) moments in an ongoing democratic process. He writes, "if democracy is possible, it is because the universal does not have any necessary body, any necessary content. Instead, different groups compete to give their particular aims a temporary function of universal representation" 1. The double-movement of radical democracy, then, lies in its ability to "democratize" the process of competition, and to simultaneously create a public moment of "commonality" in which this competition is possible. This "public" moment is, I would argue, a strong notion of "citizenship."

As Mouffe has eloquently argued, in a radical democracy "citizenship is not just one identity among others, as it is in Liberalism, nor is it the dominant identity that overrides all others, as it is in Civic Republicanism."2 To put it another way, some version of the "common good" exists in public, up for debate, but in transcendence of particular interests. In the same movement, however, the particular is not subordinated to the "universal"; the former exists as a constant challenge to the latter. Thus the "universal" must be shown to only exist insofar as it is a temporary crystallization of the particular as the universal; at the same time, every "particularity" is shaped by its reference to a common citizenship.

I have repeatedly emphasized the notion of the "public," here: clearly, I would argue that it is through this "sphere" of life that such contestation and movement occurs. But I would also argue that this contestation and movement challenges what the "public sphere" itself encompasses. By the "public" I do not mean some static notion of the polis which, in Ancient Greece (and in some more recent formulations as well), was a space that necessarily existed through exclusion of "the private." Rather, "the public" must be viewed as something other than the simple space of commonality, difference being relegated to other "spheres" of life.3 "The polis" then, is itself a contested terrain. Indeed, one could argue that any democratic notion of the "public" involves a contestation to define, temporarily, what is "common" and what is "idiosyncratic." Thus, not only are "public" and "private" historically specific concepts, but they are constantly changing: the proliferation of democratic struggles characterizing contemporary social life can be seen as an extension of "the public" to include in a way conducive to discussion, a variety of communities and identities against the contemporary trend of "privatization," and against contemporary crystallizations of "the universal" to mean a specific realm of "politics."

And that, to me, is radical democracy: a contestation of the universal, the particular, the public and the private to continually reshape the contours of what "the political" means. Radical democracy means, necessarily, broadening political participation in a meaningful way. It means fostering a variety of voices to contest "the universal," and fostering a recognition of a variety of struggles as specifically, and relatedly, democratic. It means showing the common language of democratic speech—especially liberty and equality—to which these contestations refer, and the contents of which these contestations change. But perhaps most importantly, it means showing that both moments are partial, contingent representations: the common language is drawn from a series of related particularities; the proliferation of voices refers to a common version of a "good," albeit a temporary one.

A radical democracy is thus one which recognizes its own contingency, one which does not believe its processes and techniques to embody democracy "itself." It is, paradoxically, a form of democracy that can never claim itself to be fully "democratic." What constitutes the "common" and the "specific" is always subject to change; what constitutes "democracy" is thus also necessarily mutable, subject to debate (which, of course, also includes debating the version presented here). And, with the changes, come new modes of political speech, new meanings for "empowerment" and "participation," new shapes, new directions, and new floor plans for the forum. Thus, we can never precisely define just what a "true" radical democracy might look like, which is why it's so "radical."

Which is why my "ideal student" so closely resembles my "ideal citizen" in a radical democracy. She is encouraged to evaluate her specificity in terms of a commonality (a course curriculum, a small "good," I hope), but at the same time she is (again, hopefully)4 able to recognize her own experiences as themselves constituting that good. She leaves the course with a sense that neither is "the truth," but that both, through their continual interplay in and across a variety of terrains, are the future.


1. Ernesto Laclau, 1992, "Universalism, Particularism, and the Question of Identity," October, 61, Summer, p. 90.

2. Chantal Mouffe, "Feminism, Citizenship, and Radical Democratic Politics," in Judith Butler and Joan Scott, 1992, Feminists Theorizing the Political (New York: Routledge), p. 378.

3. The "public/private" distinction is a hotly contested topic; I would argue that a radical democratic agenda must include a critical and flexible conception of "the public" or it runs the risk of excluding the very communities and voices it seeks to include.

4. Of course, this "hope" is not simply wishful thinking, but a matter of the practices which others in this volume have described. Likewise, citizenship and democratization.

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