Counter-Democracy – Two forms of depoliticization

Rosanvallon, p. 259

Two forms of depoliticization

The development of “unpolitical” counter-democratic forms parallels other key transformations in government. One of the most striking changes in this regard is the substitution of decentralized processes of governance for more traditional forms of government. Although this change has also contributed to the decline of politics, it is not really of the same nature as the changes discussed previously. It is important to understand the difference in order to appreciate the specific way in which the decline of politics is linked to counter-democracy. Indeed, we need to be clear in order to deconstruct such overly general concepts as “the decline of the political,” “the privatization of society,” and “the advent of an individualistic society” – concepts that masquerade as indispensable keys to the present but actually make it more difficult to understand what is going on.

Over the past twenty years, a large literature has grown up around the concept of governance.7 Whole journals are devoted to nothing else.8 Yet a certain vagueness remains, because the same word is used to denote very different modes of regulation and decision. Thus “governance” can refer to a new age in international relations: the age of “the post-state actor.” Or it can refer to corporate governance or the governance of cities or even “public governance.” The concept rapidly gained currency because it seemed to describe a series of related changes. Three common features stand out: Networking: First, decisions involve a number of actors of different nature and status. In the international order, for example, one thinks of states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and public agencies of various kinds. Public and private operators interact, with each exercising a
“governing” function in the sense of exerting pressure or intervening in various ways (through the law, the media, or social interaction, for example). The idea of governance thus posits the existence not of a single legitimate decision-maker but rather of a heterogeneous, interactive network of participants.

Complexity: “Decisions” are not specific choices made at a well-defined point in time. They are rather the result of complex, iterative processes. The very term “decision” tends to lose its significance when applied to the shifting relations among plural actors engaged in an ongoing process of consultation, negotiation, adaptation, and compromise. In firms, pyramidal hierarchies in which the chief management tool is grading of subordinates by superiors are increasingly giving way to more decentralized and flexible modes of cooperation. Here, the notion of governance refers to a mode of regulation characterized by flexible forms of coordination involving several
channels of communication that come together in certain nodal points of a network. In the political order, governance applies to situations in which legally empowered authorities are obliged to engage in ongoing dialogue and implicit or explicit compromise with various social agencies. The word thus captures a revolution in the relationship between state and civil society. Broadly speaking, the new modes of regulation tend to dissolve the
distinction between administration and politics. The various spheres and organizational levels of social life are governed by increasingly similar processes. Firms, government bureaucracies, and local and regional governments operate in quite similar ways. At the same time, the difference between the international and the national order tends to diminish.

Absence of hierarchy: Rules are no longer derived from a hierarchy of norms organized around the idea of a general will embodied in the state (or an international order defined in similar terms). In this context, “governance” refers to a system of pluralistic, heterogeneous norms combining national and international law with elements of arbitration, convention, and custom in a complex and evolving relationship. The complexity has to do with the variety of agencies involved in the regulation of a series of relevant domains. There is no doubt that governance in the sense described above is something new and real, but it is difficult to define more precisely, because ultimately it has to be understood in negative terms, that is, in terms of its difference from previous hierarchical systems. There are quite different ways of doing this. On the one hand, governance can be seen as an expression of social and political disintegration, as tacit assent to the decline of democratic principles undermined by the growing influence of the market and legal system. “Governance” can then be seen as a sort of ideological term cloaking the wreckage of the republican-democratic ideal.

To adopt this point of view is to accept the idea of a broad crisis of democracy, of representation, of the idea of the general interest. This pessimistic (or is it disillusioned?) attitude has been adopted by many authors across a broad ideological spectrum ranging from anti-globalization activists to neo-nationalist theorists. On the other hand, there is another way of looking at the rise of governance, a more neutral approach, which sees it as a consequence of the growing complexity and fragmentation of contemporary society, which consists of a series of relatively autonomous subsystems. In other words, the era of organizations gives way to the era of networks. This leads directly to the more positive view that societies today are more capable of horizontal coordination, of organizing themselves without recourse to supervisory authorities. The second way of looking at governance is probably more widespread than the first. It is shared by a great many scholars who have studied changes in public-sector management and the role of civil-society organizations.

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