Spectating and Acting: A Tension at the Heart of Democratic Politics

Workshop at the University of Edinburgh
June 20, 2014

Outline

This workshop will explore the links as well as contradictions between spectating and acting in democratic societies. Today, the inhabitants of modern democracies inevitably experience a tension between the normative ideals of citizenship and its real-world conditions. On the one hand, we all are expected to play an active role in the political decision-making process, by autonomously raising our voice and by constructively participating in public deliberations. On the other hand, the majority of citizens in modern democracies are, due to the sheer scale and complexity of society, condemned to passive spectatorship. This becomes clear in exceptional moments of crisis, for instance when a potential humanitarian intervention is debated: While we are currently inundated with images of violence in Syria, the space for genuine political action on the part of citizens in the West seems increasingly limited. However, the tension between spectating and acting is also evident in more mundane situations, such as when austerity measures are introduced. When faced with harsh budget cuts, we, the 99%, are often mere spectators, and not actors. This constellation raises philosophical questions about how spectating and acting ought to relate to each other: Is the former a necessary pre-condition for the latter? Or does the former nowadays completely eclipse the latter? What consequences for democratic politics follow from the observation that it is today very difficult, if not impossible, to get one’s voice heard in public deliberations? Is there a potential for the recovery of genuine political action in times of widespread apathy and cynicism?

Speakers

Commentators

Participation

Participation is free of charge, but the number of places is limited. Therefore, it is essential you register here. (Eventbrite)

Time and Place

The workshop takes place in meeting room 1.11 of the University of Edinburgh’s main library building. It will run from 9:00 to 17:00. Directions to the venue can be found here.

Organiser

Dr Mathias Thaler, University of Edinburgh

Funding

The workshop is funded through a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (JUDGEPOL), whose PI is Mathias Thaler. Further funding is provided by the University of Edinburgh’s Global Justice Academy.

Workshop Programme (download as PDF)

9:00

Reception

9:15

Welcome: Mathias Thaler

Morning Session
Chair: Mathias Thaler

9:30-10:00

Jeffrey Green

“Plebeian Pleasures: The Idea of Extrapoliticism”

10:00-10:15

Comment by Mathias Thaler

10:15-10:45

Discussion

10:45-11:00

Coffee Break

11:00-11:30

Carol C. Gould

“Interactive Democracy: From Cyberspace to the Workplace”

11:30-11:45

Comment by Rowan Cruft

11:45-12:15

Discussion

12:15-13:15

Lunch Break

Afternoon Session
Chair: Tim Hayward

13:15-13:45

Mihaela Mihai

“Denouncing Historical ‘Misfortunes’: From Passive Injustice to Reflective Spectatorship”

13:45-14:00

Comment by Philip Cook

14:00-14:30

Discussion

14:30-14:45

Coffee Break

14:45-15:15

Andrew Schaap

“The Spectacle of the People in Schmitt and Rancière”

15:15-15:30

Comment by Neil Walker

15:30-16:00

Discussion

16:00-16:45

Concluding Discussion

Paper Abstracts

Jeffrey Green: “Plebeian Pleasures: The Idea of Extrapoliticism”

This paper is the first half of the last chapter of my book manuscript, The Plebeian Addendum to Liberal Democracy, which develops the idea of plebeianism as a way to better comprehend the nature of contemporary liberal democracies. In the earlier parts of the book, I argue for three main “plebeian” ideas: (1) that in certain respects ordinary citizens today experience politics as plebeians or “second class citizens” (they do not expect ever to hold office, they exert power only as part of a wider mass, they enjoy a primarily spectatorial relationship to politics, and they know that economic inequality inescapably reproduces itself in the form of disproportionate civic opportunities for the wealthy); (2) that, normatively, they should follow the plebeians of late Republican Rome, and other plebeian republics, and make the regulation of the most advantaged class as vital a democratic goal as the more familiar concern for the least advantaged class; and (3) that the pursuit of plebeian goals cannot be achieved merely through an ethics of civility, but must include various vulgar forms of political advocacy, such as non-deliberative discourse, reasonable envy toward the superrich, indignation, the methodological vulgarity that follows from the inescapable element of arbitrariness in the differentiation of the few from the many, and, with these, the understanding of oneself, politically, as a plebeian. In the final chapter, I address the politico-psychological question of how ordinary citizens might, on democratic grounds, transcend from time to time the darkness and disappointments of citizenship when conceived in largely spectatorial, plebeian terms.

Carol C. Gould: Interactive Democracy: From Cyberspace to the Workplace

In the face of current tendencies that render citizens into mere spectators of political decisions in which they have essentially no input, this paper considers more active forms of participation emerging in certain social and economic contexts beyond politics proper. It focuses on three such domains and examines how participation within them can have important effects on politics per se and possibly even open up new arenas for democratic participation. The three domains are online networking, social movement activism, and employee management within firms. The interactivity of web 2.0 and the development of “crowdsourcing” have been put to interesting political uses (e.g., in drafting the Icelandic constitution, or in blogs, or online collaboration), while Occupy Wall Street contributed to a new emphasis on inequality (at least for a period) within the politics of the United States and some other countries. At the same time, workplace democracy and its promise of a global ethic of democratic management suggests ways in which smaller-scale participation in economic and social contexts could help to cultivate a more active democratic personality among citizens, although the scope of worker-managed firms is presently quite narrow. The paper will also take note of some of the drawbacks and limits of participation in these three domains, as well as inquire how it may be possible to institutionalize such newer contexts for interactive democracy and to leverage them for broader forms of politics.

Mihaela Mihai: “Denouncing Historical ‘Misfortunes’: From Passive Injustice to Reflective Spectatorship”

Denunciations refer to public statements of condemnation targeting unjust acts, practices, institutions, or persons. Typically, they occupy positions on a continuum between “a social critique that points out an injustice in its most general aspect” and “an individual critique that targets an individual, in the sense of denouncing someone to the authorities for the purpose of having a sanction applied.” Due to their prominence as weapons of political control within non-democratic regimes, denunciations have a bad reputation. This paper argues there is nothing intrinsically problematic with denunciations: when oriented by a commitment to the guiding principles of constitutional democracies and resonating in the wider society, they can kick-start important political debates. I will not address denunciations of individuals by individuals directed to the authorities for the purpose of punishment. Instead, I focus on the harder case of denunciations that target complex injustices, i.e. injustices that involve, beyond the direct perpetrators, many who allowed or even condoned the abuses in the past and who now benefit from turning a blind eye. Such injustices are often invisible: they seldom feature as “injustices” in political debates. While denunciations can target a multitude of injustices and take a variety of forms, this paper deals with the case of societies with a past of political violence. I argue that, in re-politicising previously neutralised areas of social life, legitimate acts of condemnation can play a crucial critical role: they can raise awareness and fuel important public debates over how pervasive injustices reproduce unimpeded. Building on Hannah Arendt’s work on storytelling, the paper claims that denunciations can invite the passive onlooker to take a position regarding the plight of the victims of “misfortune”, thus becoming a reflective spectator who can think politically. Two examples – the Argentinean practice of escraches and Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz – serve as illustrations for this theoretical exercise.

Andrew Schaap: “The Spectacle of the People in Schmitt and Rancière”

This paper traces the commonalities and differences in Schmitt’s and Rancière’s respective accounts of “the people,” including its constitution, the conditions of its appearance and its potential for action. It examines how each author treats the nature of the democratic subject, its representation and the equality of its members. Both Schmitt and Rancière view the people as the democratic subject that the state must presuppose for its legitimation and yet, which it cannot contain within its constituted order. In that sense, the people is never wholly within its constitution. Indeed, for both thinkers, it is by virtue of its situation without the constitution that a people becomes political. Despite these affinities, however, these thinkers are preoccupied by opposing political concerns. Schmitt’s fascination with the constituent power of the people was motivated by his concern to ensure the stability of the state and social unity. In contrast, Rancière sees in the figure of the people the basis for an unceasing politicization of the existing order. The paper will consider the implications of their competing accounts of the people for considering the relation between acting and spectating in contemporary politics.

Biographies of the Participants

Philip Cook

Philip Cook is Lecturer in Political Theory at University of Edinburgh. His current research focuses on contractarianism, children, and justice. Recent work has appeared in CRISSP, Political Studies, and Utilitas. He is also co-editor of the journal Res Publica.

Rowan Cruft

Rowan Cruft is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and has taught philosophy at the University of Stirling since 2002. He has published articles on the nature and justification of rights and duties, focusing on comparisons between different forms of right: human rights, contractual rights, property rights, and legal rights. Cruft is co-editor of Crime, Punishment and Responsibility: The Jurisprudence of Antony Duff (OUP 2011), and is currently co-editing OUP’s Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (forthcoming 2014).

Carol C. Gould

Carol C. Gould is Distinguished Professor in the Philosophy Department at Hunter College and in the Doctoral Programs in Philosophy and Political Science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she is also Director of the Center for Global Ethics and Politics at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. She is the Editor of the Journal of Social Philosophy. Gould is the author of Marx’s Social Ontology (MIT Press, 1978), Rethinking Democracy: Freedom and Social Cooperation in Politics, Economy, and Society (Cambridge University Press, 1988), and Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2004), which won the 2009 David Easton Book Award from the Foundations of Political Theory section of the American Political Science Association. Her new book Interactive Democracy: The Social Roots of Global Justice is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2014. Gould has edited or co-edited seven books, including Women and Philosophy (1976), The Information Web: Ethical and Social Issues in Computer Networking (1989), Gender (1999), and Cultural-Identity and the Nation-State (2003), and has published over 70 articles in social and political philosophy, feminist theory, philosophy of law, and applied ethics. She has received fellowships and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and the Woodrow Wilson International Centers for Scholars.

Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey Green is Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a democratic theorist with broad interests in ancient and modern political philosophy and contemporary social theory. Green is the author of The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship (Oxford University Press, 2010), which was awarded the First Book Prize from the Foundations of Political Theory section of the American Political Science Association.  His current book project, “The Plebeian Addendum to Liberal Democracy”, develops the idea of plebeianism as a way to better comprehend the nature of contemporary liberal democracies. Green taught previously at Harvard University and at Gothenburg University in Sweden. In 2013, he received Penn’s Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching by an Assistant Professor. Green holds a BA, summa cum laude, from Yale University, a JD from Yale Law School, and a PhD from Harvard.

Tim Hayward

Tim Hayward works in the fields of political philosophy and environmental ethics. At the University of Edinburgh, he is Professor of Environmental Political Theory and Director of the Just World Institute. His research has focused on understanding how environmental values and ecological principles can be integrated into social and political theory. Recently, this research has extended into the international sphere, and he is currently completing a new book, Global Justice and Human Rights: An Ecological Perspective. His previous book, Constitutional Environmental Rights, was the first full-length treatment of the topic from a political theory perspective. He is also preparing a four-volume collection for Routledge entitled Human Rights and the Environment.

Mihaela Mihai

Mihaela Mihai is the 50th Anniversary Lecturer in Politics at the University of York, the UK. Before joining York, she spent one year as a researcher at the Centre for Research in Ethics at the University of Montreal, Canada and two years at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. Her articles have been accepted for publication in Ratio JurisOxford Journal of Legal StudiesJournal of Political PhilosophyPolitical TheoryParallax, and Philosophy Compass, among others. A co-edited book on political apologies for historical injustices is forthcoming in 2014 with Palgrave. Her own book manuscript, entitled Rescuing Resentment and Indignation: The Democratic Potential of Negative Emotions for Transitional Justice, is currently under review.

Andrew Schaap

Andrew Schaap teaches politics at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Political Reconciliation (2005), editor of Law and Agonistic Politics (2009) and co-editor of (with Danielle Celermajer and Vrasidas Karalis) Power, Judgment and Political Evil (2010) and (with Gary Foley & Edwina Howell) The Aboriginal Tent Embassy (2014).

Mathias Thaler

Mathias Thaler is Chancellor’s Fellow in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. His main research interest is in contemporary political theory. He is currently working on a judgment-based approach to understanding, critiquing and reforming notions of political violence. This project has been supported by a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (2013-2017). Thaler’s recent publications have appeared in Analyse & Kritik, Contemporary Political Theory, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, European Journal of Political Theory and Philosophy & Social Criticism. He is the author of Moralische Politik oder politische Moral? Eine Analyse aktueller Debatten zur internationalen Gerechtigkeit (Campus, 2008).

Neil Walker

Neil Walker holds the Regius Chair of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh. His main area of expertise is constitutional theory. He has published extensively on the constitutional dimension of legal order at sub-state, state, supranational and international levels. He has also published at length on the relationship between security, legal order and political community. He maintains a more general interest in broader questions of legal theory as well as in various substantive dimensions of UK and EU public law. Previously he taught public law at Edinburgh for ten years (1986-96), was Professor of Legal and Constitutional Theory at the University of Aberdeen (1996–2000), and, most recently, was Professor of European Law at the European University Institute in Florence (2000–2008), where he was also the first Dean of Studies (2002–2005). He has also held various visiting appointments – including Visiting Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Tilburg, Netherlands (2000); Visiting Professor of Law, University of Columbia, NY(2005); Eugene Einaudi Chair of European Studies, University of Cornell (2007); Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law, University of Toronto (2007); and Global Professor of Law, New York University (2011–2012).