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.
To Read the Entire Essay