Two Visions of Democracy: Nadia Urbinati

Two Visions of Democracy: Nadia Urbinati


On few topics such as the one that concerns us here—that is, the relationship between liberal principles and religious cultures—the debate over the identity of the Left (i.e., progressive democracy views broadly conceived) clearly overlaps with the issue of the identity of democracy.

It seems to me that, for now, two positions have emerged: on the one hand, there are those who, questioning what they regard as a naive liberal ideal of toleration, acknowledge the existence of cultural and religious differences within a democratic community, but with one exception—Islam. On the other hand, there are those who question this exception insofar as they suggest we should be careful to articulate our judgment on the Islamic culture and think it is a mistake to regard it as a whole, as if it were a homogeneous world with no internal differences.

The former is the expression of a militant liberalism that opposes the extension of the category of multiculturalism to include Islam because it sees the latter as a subspecies of totalitarianism more than simply a religious or cultural tradition. The latter, on the other hand, is an expression of liberal multiculturalism that, contra Pascal Bruckner, does not think that people are “chained to their roots” and are immersed in their tradition in a noncritical and unreflective way.

It is important to be aware that these two positions are a reflection of a fact that can hardly be ignored—namely, the intricate link between domestic politics (of democratic counties) and foreign politics (of democratic countries towards those countries or world areas where Islamic terrorism originates). International politics and issues are deeply intertwined with national or domestic politics in a way that recalls closely the Cold War era. I would thus propose a parallel between today’s dualism between “us” and “them” and the Cold War’s.

The first of the two kinds of liberalism I mentioned above seems to correspond to the one that during the Cold War was shared by those liberals and democrats who believed that a dialogue with the communists was not only undesirable but moreover impossible: One could not in fact be tolerant with those who were intolerant. In that context, communism was seen as a whole, an ideology with religious and dogmatic characteristics that was inhospitable of dissent. Many democrats existed who saw no other solutions except a policy of the wall: us against them. It is interesting to notice that after September 11 many of those, who at the time of the Cold War theorized and embraced a politics of intolerance toward the Communists, have now tended to apply it to Islam.

Dissent, Bobbio and Communism
With all due precautions that any generalization demands, it is possible to venture the following observation: The way in which the political culture of the Cold War was experienced and practiced can offer us with a guide for understanding the current division (and even disagreement) between European and American intellectuals on the subject of multiculturalism and, more in general, democratization. If one recalls the engaging debates involving European intellectuals from the 1950s onwards, one would perhaps realize that it will prove extremely difficult to find similar examples in the United States.

Let’s briefly analyze two representative magazines of the 1950s, one American and one Italian: Dissent and Nuovi Argomenti. Dissent, of course, played a unique and original role in the United States, since it attempted to disassociate the Left from communism so as to preserve the former from the anti-communist fury of McCarthyism. Dissent contributed in an important way to defending a left-wing democratic identity in a country that was little prepared to make distinctions within and among left-wing streams. Yet, not even Dissent discussed with the communists. It provided instead space for ex-communists, who could better describe the unchangeable monolithic characteristics of Marx-Leninism.

Now, let’s turn to Europe and, in particular, Italy, and focus on the magazine Nuovi Argomenti, which in 1954 launched an extraordinary investigation concerning the role to be played by the Left with regards to communism and the role to be played by Western European democracy with regards to the two blocs and their respective models of democracy. And it is Norberto Bobbio who comes to mind, one of the most lucid participants in that debate and a scholar who was not afraid to challenge the Italian Communists directly by inviting them to discuss the subject of democracy and liberty. We do not need to remember that beginning with 1947, the political confrontation took in the West the character of odium theologicum.

Bobbio’s aversion to “political sectarianism” and the spirit of “religious war” on both sides of the political spectrum may explain his inclination toward a realist vision of politics. He was convinced that a liberal and secular politics would gradually transform conflicts from absolute contrapositions into an antagonism between organized interests and political programs.

Although a church-like movement, the Communist Party was perhaps far from internally homogeneous, in his opinion, and a politics of dialogue—Bobbio thought—would perhaps make its doctrinal differences become visible to its own believers and militants. As a matter of fact, once the Italian Communists agreed to discuss their doctrinal principles with a liberal theorist according to the method of “arguments and counter-arguments,” they were actually agreeing to put their dogmatic system on trial, and to risk acknowledging its limits and flaws.

Toleration and dialogue were the only strategies that could engender a change in the communists’ ideology while, at the same time, preventing those who held “correct opinions” (liberals and democrats) from becoming fanatics in their own way. Thus, the politics of dialogue was not merely prudential. It was primarily normative and principled. Dialogue and tolerance were essential not merely because they would keep the Communists within the constitutional system, but because they would enable Italian democracy to consolidate itself.

On the other hand, the western side of Cold War also had an anti-liberal core when it claimed that the functioning of democracy required a society that was inherently homogeneous in ideology and culture—not only political institutions and procedures. Hence Bobbio said: “It might be logically consistent to answer intolerance with intolerance, but it is ethically poor and perhaps politically disadvantageous. One can never be sure that the person who is intolerant will understand the ethical value of respecting others’ views once they are accepted within the liberal camp. It is, however, certain that a persecuted and excluded intolerant will never become a liberal. It is worth risking liberty by making its enemy its beneficiary if the only alternative is to limit liberty to the point of suffocating it or not allowing it to bear fruit. Much better an always endangered but expansive liberty than a liberty well protected but unable to develop.”

The European Art of Dialogue
In any case, the European peoples—whether because their closeness never allowed a radical anti-dialogue attitude, or because the many wars they fought never ended with the extermination of the enemy (the extermination of Jews was not perpetrated in war operations)—developed the habit of debating matters among themselves in a permanent relationship of friendliness/enmity. They were forced or solicited to practice the art of dialogue; as a result, they acknowledged, de facto, that no church or faith is a homogenous block. It is certainly possible that the Protestant Reformation (the first great example of pluralisation of the monolithic Church) played a crucial role in making Europeans experience and cultivate this attitude.

Whatever the historical reasons, this open-to-compromise attitude that is not tremendously afraid of cultural pluralism seems to be more difficult to practice in the United States, although American civil society is more multicultural than in any European country. Historians of ideas and cultures may be tempted to explain the difference of American and European attitudes by pointing to the ideology of American exceptionalism that arose out of an understandable need for the young American nation to distinguish itself from Europe and, above all, its history of political vices, such as despotism and its hierarchical and privileged culture. The role played by the United States in shaping a modern democratic culture was fundamental, and American exceptionalism played also a positive role.

Meanwhile, however, it oriented American politics and political culture toward a proud defense of its own national uniqueness. Until this defense coincided with issues such as peace and democracy, as in the cases listed by Michael Walzer in an interview published by Dissent, a virtuous circle came into being that strengthened both democracy and the leading international role of the United States as a spokesman for democracy. It is this virtuous circle that is under crisis nowadays and, as I shall explain below, this is manifest precisely in the different visions of democracy and the culture of dialogue that have become rooted respectively in Europe and in the United States. Before analyzing these visions, I would like however to return to the multicultural attitude with which I started this paper.

The Risky Politics of “Block Thinking”
The difference between the two multicultural attitudes I have outlined at the start is clear whenever we pay attention to the political theory of Michael Walzer, perhaps the American intellectual who has, more than any other, reflected on the multiple paths of reformism and the Left. I am specifically referring to his theory on the social meaning of ideas—the idea of “criticism from within” with which, ever since the 1980s, Walzer wanted to distinguish from the monolithic theories of a just society founded on a “simple” concept of equality (as implied by the two principles of justice that John Rawls deduced a priori from the “original position” and through the mental experiment of the “veil of ignorance”)—and the pluralistic approaches that he founded instead, ones that worked on the assumption that each people is primed to create through a process of interpretation from “within” toward a more just society and/or democracy. (How can one forget Walzer’s brilliant analysis of the movement of democratization in Eastern European countries?)

Walzer’s appeal to respect, appreciate, and encourage an internal articulation of critical views was followed by an extraordinary theoretical production that focused on the analysis of the foundations of two reformist attitudes—the deductive and the contextualist—and on the strategies put forth by the intellectuals who endorsed them. It is worth mentioning on this regard his Interpretation and Social Criticism and The Company of Critics, two pivotal works published one year after the other, in 1987 and 1988 respectively.

In a Public Culture article “Block Thinking and Internal Criticism,” Dilip Gaonkar and Charles Taylor refer precisely to this theoretical contribution by Walzer. They emphasize, correctly, the important implications that it has today in the face of the rebirth of new Manichean attitudes amidst Western reformist intellectuals. Goankar and Taylor wrote that if multiculturalism does not degenerate into particularism and is not transformed into sectarian policies—if it is, in other words, liberal in its principles and democratic in its attitudes—then it has two basic characteristic: First, it presumes that cultural differences are unavoidable in a climate of freedom and should be acknowledged and tolerated (with due care that civil rights are protected). Second, it assumes that within each culture there are minorities (which the liberal rights of the “exist” and “voice,” as elucidated by Albert Hirschman, should guarantee)—in other words, that no culture is monolithic.

Each culture is like a universe of complicated dialectics and disagreements that are often invisible to those outside since that complexity is expressed in a language, and through symbols and memories, that are better seen and understood by those who are familiar with them because they made them or shared in the history of those who made them. Yet, many signs of that complexity can be seen or sensed from those outside who can read and interpret them through their own experiences because outsiders also presumably have engaged in similar debates and fight their own battles. Contextual criticism does not mean closure to the outside or solipsism. It means, rather, cross-understanding through the comparison of experiences.

Paul Berman’s Mistake
The philosophy of dialogue is based on these premises, both of which Manichaeism radically rejects. To resume our main topic: this Manichean rejection is based on radicalism, both inside the Islamic and Western culture. The politics of “block thinking”—or the assumption that there are monolithic and, hence, unchangeable cultures—is risky since it tends to thrust all the members of the culture in question (be it Islamic and Western) and into the arms of those radical minorities that do really want their culture to be a unitary block under their leadership.

Positions such as those endorsed by Paul Berman, which I would define as one of Manichean Occidentalism, are not only reductionist and somehow deceptive but also politically dangerous because it may, unwillingly and unwittingly, help the cause of Osama bin Laden’s extremism.

Goankar and Taylor write that the best “antidote” to “block thinking” must be found precisely in the concept of Walzer’s “internal criticism”—because in the invitation to think that within every society or culture there are principles, forms of expression, words, ideas, and symbols that allow people to criticize and possibly reform the given representative interpretations of their own culture.

As we know, Walzer employed contextual criticism firstly against Marx-Leninism’s messianism—their idea that there was only one path to a better society and that was one defined by the science of dialectical materialism. To Marx-Leninists’ vernacular cultures or dialects were nothing more than prejudices that the language of science would have to get rid off in order to allow the future society to emerge. Contextual criticism, in Walzer’s view, was not only a theoretical answer to this form of rationalism and dogmatism, but also a political platform whose aim was that of facilitating internal processes of cultural transformation through or thanks to stimuli and influence from outside.

However, this process of cultural transformation should be a product of indirect influence not direct influence or military intervention. The democratization of Eastern European countries was achieved by means of the concurrence of internal and external political and cultural actions (not military). I would suggest that democratic and liberal intellectuals apply to the contemporary scenario of democracy’s planetary destiny Walzer’s dualism between a monolithic theory of reformism imposed from outside (deduced from some abstract universal principles and the rationalistic stipulation that any attempt to contextualize them would represent a deviation from True) and a participated reformism developed from within (the result of diasporas and interpretative conflicts concerning some shared meanings and texts, thanks also to forms of external influence). Now that I have made this premise, I can address the issue of the identity of democracy with which I started this paper.

Two Visions of Democracy
It is possible to identify two broad visions of democracy: One is ideological, quasi religious in kind, based on a nucleus of values that are identified with the West as an organic whole (it corresponds, more or less, to a Wilsonian conception of democracy as a mission and that not only many American neo-conservatives but also some revisionist liberals such as Berman identify with). The other is moral and procedural in kind and pays attention to the context. It is based on a nucleus of procedures that are applicable in various circumstances.

The first concept is powerfully identifiable with a politics of the will—democracy as an international political project that must be promoted even with coercive measures. While it acknowledges democracy as the highest value and peace as its corollary, the politics of the will betrays the democratic principle of self-determination, which is the necessary condition for the creation of democracy, and violates the principle of sovereignty without which neither democracy nor peace can exist (pace the easy declarations concerning the death of the state and sovereignty).

The other vision is identifiable with a politics of judgment. It is better rooted than the other one in the idea that citizens’ consent is the fundamental requirement for a democratic political order. This is because it deems the state as fundamental for democracy—an institutional authority organized in order to operate through rules and laws, and equipped to implement legally acknowledged rights that are legitimate and revisable.

Equally important for achieving democracy is the promotion of social and economic conditions that fight against poverty; to make their lives decent, people need concrete chances to find a job and gain a just salary. Without these basic conditions democracy cannot consolidate. As political scientists have proved in their comparative studies on democratization, a correlation between convenience and democratic stability is crucial. Democracy must be desirable, if is to be pursued, and once achieved, it must manage to solve social conflicts through constitutionally defined rules so that no citizen or group can tamper with rules for their own advantages.

For democracy to be desirable it is necessary that it proves itself capable of allowing social and economic improvement, of repaying those who make sacrifices to obtain and sustain it. As Alexis de Tocqueville reminds us, democracy is not founded on any kind of artificially induced or imposed patriotism nor does it demand excessive sacrifices from its citizens; it is strong because it generates a convenient form of patriotism, so to speak, or a “selfishness well understood,” which means people perceive the public good as convenient to everyone. It is precisely to this well-understood interest that I refer when I suggest that we should ensure that the transition to democracy is perceived as convenient by the players themselves.

The question could therefore be posed as follows: “How can one render the democratic process convenient and safe, not simply possible?” In this question we may recognize the great lesson we received from the system adopted by the European Union in defining the conditions for the admission of new countries: How to render democracy desirable and convenient and hence how to ensure that the citizens themselves concur in promoting and defending it.

Policies involving incentives (indirect influence) are like, or at least work like, policies of checks and balances because they make the process of democratization a cooperative strategy, an enterprise that is based on a relationship that is mutually convenient. This attitude can prosper and progress, but only if it is based on at least two conditions: that the people become the leading players in the democratic transformation; and that the world’s interdependence between peoples is a fundamental element of the democratic transformation.

Interdependency does not mean indulgence or surrendering to violence. Interdependency entails a system of mutual convenience, a condition that alone assumes the direct self-promotion of the interlocutors—of those who from within the group develop the difficult process of democratic freedom and of those who from without can help with incentives and the practice of dialogue.

Left and the Need of a Philosophy of the Individual
It seems to me that this should be the path followed by democrats in Europe as well as in the United States. There needs to be a path of contamination that uses as it means a system of checks and balances and as its stimuli, a system of correctives and incentives—not through Manichean contrapositions. In our political culture, this path—which the ancients used to call commercium, assigning to this word a meaning that is broad and rich in cultural elements, not only economic—has valid foundations; it has foundations in the liberal culture as well as the democratic one and finds (and found) practical application in a politics of dialogue.

But the politics of dialogue must rely on the premise that no culture is homogeneous like a block or a stone; that wherever human beings are born and grow up they have the capability of reflecting upon the world in which they, by chance, find themselves as “their own.”

Perhaps a democratic Left would need to enrich its political culture with a philosophy of the individual. It is no coincidence that the European intellectuals—who, at the end of the Second World War, rejected the Manichaeism of the Cold War and practiced the culture of dialogue—passed through the intellectual experience of humanism, existentialism, and personalism because these philosophical elaborations of 1930s and 1940s had contributed greatly in the moral renaissance of the value of the individual against the two hegemonic holistic systems, Fascist and communist, and these systems’ belief in the centrality of collective entities such as the state and the party.

Now, too, we are witnessing perhaps the need to emancipate the individual from the identification with the culture and/or the religion she or he belongs to. The issue here is not a conclusion that culture and religions are fictions and illusions, but the emphasis that culture and religion are expressions of—and originate in—the individual search for meaningful life.

Read Michael Walzer’s Response

Read Urbinati’s letter to Walzer (1)
Read Walzer’s letter to Urbinati (2)
Read Urbinati’s letter to Walzer (3)
Read Walzer’s letter to Urbinati (4)

Nadia Urbinati is Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University. She co-edits the magazine Constellations and recently wrote Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (University of Chicago Press 2006). This debate originally appeared in the Italian political journal Reset and Reset – Dialogues on Civilization. ©ResetDOC