Interview with David Held, conducted by Bram Gieben, The Open University, Scotland, and author of the Models of Democracy study guide. 19th May, 2006
BG: It's a great pleasure to be sitting here with you at the headquarters of Polity Press at the time of the publication of the third edition of ‘ Models of Democracy '. What I want to do today is just ask you some questions about the history of the book and the amendments which have been made to it, and just unpack the book a little bit for readers who are coming to it for the first time. After that I'll ask you a couple of questions about democracy in the modern world. So my first question is, thinking back to the original version of Models, what were your aims in writing that?
DH: Well my aims were twofold. My first aim was self-education. I was coming to political theory from a sociology background. I had done a lot of work as a student and as a young lecturer in social and political theory, but my main interests at that point were in the social elements of democracy. I had a lot to learn about democracy as a set of ideas… a changing set of critical ideas. So one of the things Models did for me was to give me an introduction to the great traditions of thinking about democracy. And if it works successfully as a book, it's partly because I am struggling to come to terms with a lot of complex ideas, and to make them intelligible to myself. But, of course, linked to that was a very challenging task set by the Open University, when they asked me to write a core part of a new course providing an introduction to modern democracy. And, as you know, we worked on this together. Out of this collaboration, and collaboration with others, came Models of Democracy. I'm quite proud of Models of Democracy now. It has been published for over twenty years. It is now in its third edition. It is published in many languages. And so I think that my attempt to educate myself in democratic ideas has been of some use to other people as well. At least I would hope that's the case.
BG: The original edition of the book was a great success. Why did you come to revise it, not once, but twice?
DH: Well the way we think about ideas, and the way we evaluate traditions of thought, inevitably, is somewhat contextual. That is to say, we are the products of our cultural traditions, of the state of learning in a discipline, and many other things at any given time. And we look at the world differently in different time periods. So once in a while it seems to me right go back to Models of Democracy and say, well, what have you learnt since the previous edition, and what has scholarship learnt since the previous edition? What new traditions are now emphasised that weren't emphasised a decade ago? And, in fact, in my writing of the second edition I took account of the great scholarship undertaken on republican elements of political thought, which were not so much talked about when I wrote the first edition. These are now in chapter two of Models. When I wrote the third edition, I took account of deliberative democracy; it is a relatively new current in democratic thinking, which was certainly not much talked about when I wrote either the first or the second editions. So we learn, traditions go on, theoretical thinking continues to develop, both in the universities and outside the universities.
And I'll just add one other thing: of course, world politics changes. Between the first and the second edition, there was the momentous end of the Cold War. So we had to rethink the meaning of a number of traditions, including, not just the significance of Marxist and socialist thinking, but also the reinvigorated, confident liberalism in the world at that time. By the time we get to the third edition, it's the post-9/11 world, and another absolutely dramatic change to political life. There were enormous ramifications, both for the domestic politics in the United States and for global politics more generally. So there are reasons internal to scholarship and reasons external to it why it seems to me a book like Models of Democracy will actually never be complete. Because in a lifetime you can only seize those traditions from a certain point in time. And, inevitably, people will come to those traditions differently as time passes.
BG: Turning now to the principle device with which you structure the book: the book has eleven distinct Models of Democracy. What exactly do you mean by a model in this context?
DH: By a model I mean essentially an analytical device. That is, a way of analysing a trajectory of thinking in a certain set of traditions. So, for example, the body of ideas which constitutes the classical approach to democracy. Or the body of ideas that constitutes the liberal approach to democracy. Or the body of ideas that constitutes the Marxist approach to democracy. And by this, one usually means a set of ideas that have been invented by more than one thinker. Thus, a model is an analytical device that catches a trajectory of thought, which has in common a certain number of things. In Thomas Kuhn's term it's a ‘paradigm', and the movement between Models are ‘paradigm shifts'. That is to say, we have distinctive ways of thinking about democracy at distinctive times. These share certain principles of justification; a certain vision of what it is to put democracy into practice and what not to do. And this shared vision constitutes the parameters of common thinking at a given time and a given place historically. Now, of course, some particularly great thinkers, like John Stuart Mill, are almost paradigm breakers; they are part of a tradition, but they also shift it. So there isn't a hard and fast rule to say that a model is always the product of many thinkers. But generally speaking, I think one can say that it captures the spirit of the time. So each model is a set of shared ideas and frameworks, which are part of a dialogue about what kind of a political system and what kind of democracy there should be.
BG: I'm glad you used the word trajectory, because one thing I noted was that, although there are eleven distinctive Models, each of which is outlined and described, both in terms of its internal content of ideas, and in terms of ways in which it would be implemented institutionally, nevertheless, some elements from the Models move on, are used and reused. They can develop and recur in different forms and combinations through the different Models .
DH: In a sense, there's nothing new under the sun! We always think within the frameworks of culture and history. The French anthropologist, Lévi Strauss, used to refer to ‘our goods to think with'. And our conceptual goods to think with are time bound and period bound. So, we think within the traditions that we've received, but we can also push out boundaries. And the story of democracy from antiquity to the present day is also a remarkable historical story, of continuity, but also of some decisive change. Let me give you three examples of decisive change. The initial theorists of democracy, as it were, saw democracy closely connected to the idea of a city. For them democracy was about self-governing city republics. This notion was current during parts of antiquity, and was born again in the early period of the Renaissance in Italy, where the great independent Italian cities enjoyed and sought some independence, both from foreign conquerors, and from other cities and the Papacy. This sense of democracy was shattered from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century onward, by the birth of the more powerful units called modern states. It was reinvented, not as democracy for cities, but as democracy for states. And this was a shift from democracy as a direct form of participation to democracy as a form of participation mediated by representation. And my book asks the question, towards the end: ‘are we now on the edge of a third great transformation in thinking'? This is one where we think of democracy, not just in relation to cities, not just in relation to nation-states, but in relation to supranational regions and, perhaps one day even, in relation to the global order. So that's the big historical question, the challenge as it were. Thus, the extraordinary, exciting story of democracy is a continuous story, but within it there are great paradigm shifts.
BG: Thank you for that. Let me now ask you another question about the book as a whole. The book is a history of an idea, and it is a history also of different periods in which forms of the idea were more or less imperfectly implemented. But it is more than just a history. You refer quite early on in your introduction, and let me quote you here. ‘To the general argument, developed in the book as a whole'. And I wondered if you could just say briefly what that argument is.
DH: All the political theorists I discuss clearly have distinctive positions to argue. And as a political theorist myself I do too. But what distinguishes, I think, a responsible teacher from an advocate, is that a responsible teacher wants to make it clear what others have brought to the table before him or her. So I very much hope that Models of Democracy tells the story of democracy by introducing other people's positions in a clear and fair and cogent way. But, at the same time, it doesn't disguise the fact that I'm also telling a story that is compelling to me. So I am reconstructing the history of democracy around a set of arguments. I'm engaging in a critical dialogue, as all the great democratic theorists have done, to also confront the changing circumstances of our time.
And these changing circumstances of our time seem to me to be informed by three insights. Firstly, that neither liberalism nor Marxism alone has illuminated the world: they both contain elements of fundamental vision, but also limits. I think one of the things we must surely think in the twenty-first century is that any claim to definitiveness by any one body of thought should be greeted with some scepticism. So, accordingly, I think there's something to be learnt from a number of diverse traditions. In certain ways, I've learned a lot from liberalism. I've also learnt a lot from the Marxist critique of the liberal conception of political power. That's the first point I would make. The second point I would make is that I've learnt a lot now also from the deliberative theorists, discussed in chapter nine. Because what they are saying is, it's not enough just to be concerned with democracy for its own sake. We have to also be concerned with the nature and quality of political representation, and with political participation in general. Participation shouldn't just be valued for its own sake; it needs to be informed participation. Now, I think the issues around that are very challenging. And the third big question that informs my narrative, as it were, is a preoccupation with the fact that increasingly we live in a global age, where what one country does affects another country, where ideas, culture and communications flow across borders, and where our environmental challenges are not just local, but global. And what has democracy, as we know it, got to say about these things? Actually in my view, in my argument, democracy, as it's been handed down to us, hasn't enough to say about these things.
So the story of democracy I want to tell is one that's open to a diversity of views, one that seeks to learn from the diversity of views in a pluralist sense. In addition, I seek to structure an argument that develops from the deficiencies of all the traditions. So I think what I'm doing is just what theorists have always done – they've always built on the work of others before them. But I think there's one difference here. And Jim Tully, one of the endorsers of the third edition of Models of Democracy highlights this. That is to say, in the twenty-first century I think we cannot be entirely confident that any one contribution is the last contribution, as it were the definitive one. So we must be aware, as thinkers and theorists, and those people reading the book must also be aware, that theory and thinking about political ideas is part of a human dialogue. If we're lucky we can make a contribution to that dialogue - but we can never arrogantly assume it's the last word!
BG: Well that brings me neatly to my next question. And that is to say that, after Parts One and Two of the book, dealing with classical and contemporary Models of Democracy, leading up towards the present day, in Part Three you move on to give your own distinctive answer to the question “What should democracy mean today”? And you do that in two chapters, one is about the model of democratic autonomy, and second model is of cosmopolitan democracy. Can you sketch in fairly lightly what those are about?
DH: I think we arrive at the end of the twentieth-century and the beginning of the twenty-first century with one stark realisation: that there are problems with democracy that are internal to the countries in which we live, and challenges to democracy that cross borders. Within nation-states we are faced, even in developed democracies, with a number of difficult dilemmas. Their states and governments are, in principle, accountable to their people. But politics has become increasingly intruded upon by the mass media, by private wealth and private interests and by rather tired, even archaic, representative systems. In addition, there is the problem of apathy: many people have lost interest in politics. And whilst, as it were, the mature democracies suffer a crisis of apathy and even legitimacy, in other parts of the world, such as South Africa, they celebrate having the vote at all. Different democracies in different places of the world have thrown up different kinds of dilemmas and problems. I think in the advanced democracies, those democracies in Western Europe and elsewhere, that have enjoyed democracy for a hundred years or more, there are a series of difficult challenges about how democracy can remain a vital energetic system of political decision-making, one that is accountable to people, that creates avenues for participation and dissent, that is something which citizens can identify with and that is something which, as it were, produces the goods for them. But, today, I think anyone looking at the current state of democracy, whether as an American citizen, a French citizen, or a British citizen, realises that the traditional mantle of democracy is less than pleasing to many citizens.
So the first chapter of Part Three is engaged in reflecting upon a number of challenges to the traditional form of the modern liberal representative state. Are there things we can learn from the history of democratic ideas to help revitalise our politics, to help bind citizens together, to help create new modes of informed participation, to help deepen the meaning of citizenship, to make citizenship more compelling? Of course in addressing these questions, there is room for discussion and debate. But my answers are informed by the historical traditions of democracy: in fact, in this penultimate chapter, I try to bring together and synthesise elements of many of the previous traditions. So I hope that this chapter discusses democratic debates in such a way that even if people don't agree with what I'm saying, they might come at least to acknowledge that there's something to be learned from these rich traditions, something to be learnt from many of the key voices. And that the challenge today is to recombine these ideas in fresh and novel ways.
The second part of this argument is that national democracies today exist in very complex global systems. What the most powerful democracies do affects us all. And this is true not just for governments but also for the agents and individuals of powerful countries. What the US Federal Bank does affects interest rates around the world. What Wal-Mart does when it's buying and selling goods from China affects the global division of labour. What we do when we use water or choose particular forms of energy to heat our houses affects the global climate. And so on and so on. In other words, the intricacies of modern life mean that the fortunes of countries are no longer set just in one nation-state. Some of the crucial issues that affect you and me and our children are now issues that can't just be settled within nation-states. What to do about immigration? What to do with global warming? What to do about patterns of trade and trade wars? What to do about the advances in genetic engineering, and the capacities for genetic manipulation? We can have a sound democratic approach to that issue, to regulating genetic research in the UK, that is sensitive to the complex ethical issues that exist, that's sensitive to the great dilemmas we face about whether or not we should or shouldn't clone human beings for example, but even if we get that right as a country, it won't make a jot of difference if the rest of the world is doing something different, and using these developments, let's say, in a more ambitious and perhaps less ethical way. So there needs to be, as it were, global solutions to certain kinds of global challenges. And so the final chapter of the book asks this question. “You think you've solved the problems when you're thinking about the nation-states? Well you haven't: today we have to think about what kind of democracy might also be possible in a global order.” This is a tough question. I don't think, in the end, there's only one answer to that question. Nobody could think that. But I hope, at least, to ask some of the right questions in addressing the dilemmas in political thinking and democratic thought that most of us will have to consider in the decades ahead.
BG: I'd like to turn now to a couple of questions about contemporary politics. Here is the first. There's a kind of paradox for me in that when we look at the percentage of the population which turns out to vote in elections in, for example, Britain and America, we're customarily very disappointed by the low turnout. We talk about apathy and about the cynicism of citizens about the system. But, at the same time, America is now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, engaged in a very vigorous foreign policy, one aim of which is to extend democracy to parts of the world where it doesn't presently exist, notably, the Middle East. I'd love to hear your reflections on that.
DH: Well I don't discuss that directly in Models of Democracy, although the attentive reader will find towards the end of the book something of an account of some of the questions you've raised. In my other writings, particularly a book I wrote recently, Global Covenant, I address these issues directly. First of all, let me say, that I think they are very difficult issues. It's easy to have a strong view of them. But I think there are great dilemmas here. First, let me just look at this, as it were, from the point of view of citizens who live in countries that aren't democratic. Take the case of Soviet Communism. Soviet Communism, which was the dominant rival to the West for over fifty years during the Cold War, crumbled. And it crumbled not just because of the pressure put on it from the West; it crumbled because its legitimacy became eroded in the eyes of its own peoples. And the mantle of democracy, the idea of democracy, inflamed an extraordinary transformation of the Soviet Union from 1989 onwards. And what we saw in the breakdown of the Soviet Union was a modern attempt to reclaim an idea that you can find throughout Models of Democracy – citizens are not free unless they govern themselves. This is a very fundamental notion. We saw it also, for example, in the transformation of South Africa. Not many people thought Nelson Mandela would ever walk the streets alive again. Not only did he walk the streets, but he became head of the South African state. An extraordinary transformation. Because democratic ideas became irresistible, even in a country that was as oppressive as apartheid South Africa. So I think the notions of democracy are compelling to peoples across the world, in diverse cultures. And I would just add one other point. That this isn't an idea, or a set of ideas, that just belong to the West. The great Indian economist and thinker Amartya Sen would be the first to say, for example, that many democratic ideas have roots in Indian political thought, as well as Western political thought. So we shouldn't think that the story of democracy is just about the West.
But having said that, let me say something else which I believe is terribly important; that is, that democracy is a very fragile set of ideas, and a democratic culture is a very hard kind of culture to create. Many of the countries of the West were liberal first before they became democratic. That is to say, it took two or three hundred years for the notion to be established widely that all adults should be regarded as citizens, individuals with their own legitimate views and interests, who should be accountable ultimately to themselves, and not a god or a king. These notions of the emancipated individual, who had a legitimate part to play in government, who could rightly demand ‘no taxation without representation' and so on, these notions of citizenship took a long time to develop, culturally and historically. There were great moments of revolution of course: in the United States with the independence movement, in Britain with the great reformist movements, and in France with the great revolution of 1789. But surely we in the West must be aware that democracy is rarely created successfully from above: it has to be nurtured from below. And our democratic traditions have sprung up from below and have been fought for: fought for by groups of men of property seeking to restrain the nobility; fought for by men who were seeking the male universal franchise; fought for by women who were seeking the end of a sexist franchise; fought for by blacks who were seeking a civil rights movement to make their rights equal with those of other citizens, and so on. The history of democracy is a struggle to extend its ideas and rights to others as co-equals. You cannot bomb your way to democracy.
There are no great precedents in history for the notion that the Pentagon can determine who will be democratic and who won't, and on what grounds! It is absolutely naïve from the point of view of the history of democracy to believe that US foreign policy can easily create democracies around the world. Now, of course, someone could say in response to me: “What about the end of the Second World War? Both Germany and Japan became democracies after defeat”. And, indeed, there's some truth in that. But these were countries that were completely vanquished, that were totally occupied by mass armies. The situation today in Afghanistan and Iraq is different. First of all, it seems to me that in contemporary circumstances the idea that you can ‘shock and awe' a whole people into submission carries no weight. It was an extraordinarily naïve idea: naïve, not just in a historical sense, but naïve that Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld and others could believe that enough coercive power would so overwhelm people, that they would submit to the rule of American thinking, to the American and Western conceptions of democracy. Well, the traditions of thinking in the Middle East and elsewhere are much more complex than that. And anyway we live in an age where empire is, as such, over. The story of the twentieth-century, in some ways, is the end of colonialism. So to attempt to rekindle it at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with a belief that military power can induce submission, is I think an idea that is not either plausible or convincing. And the history of the invasion since the second Iraq War, I believe, is a testimony to what I'm saying. The one thing that we know at the beginning of the twenty-first century is that people wish to determine their own lives, however they do it. Iraqis may want a democratic public life, but they don't want an occupation – especially an occupation that fails in nearly all respects to improve the quality of their lives.
BG: Thank you. Well, let me take you back to another feature of our culture, one which could not be more contemporary, You said that all academic writing about democracy is time bound. Well there's one aspect of the twentieth-century which seems to me possibly very significant for our purposes, and that's the emergence of what's been called the information society. Not just the explosion in global interconnectedness which is part of globalisation, but the growth of the electronic media, of broadcasting, information gathering, communications. What impact do you think that these developments may have on the theory, on the practice, of democracy?
DH: I think the breakthroughs in information technology and the new media are extraordinary, in cultural and social terms. They're extraordinary for at least two reasons. One is they change the nature of human communication, in a way that's obvious to most people. My teenage children can work the Internet at home and communicate with people around the world. So communications for many people have extraordinary potential. New technology changes the spatial nature of communications. But there's something even more important than that: these technologies drive the changing nature of human social systems. One example is the world economy: the world economy is being reconstituted, reformed, as a result of these technologies. For example, global financial markets would not be possible in their current shape and form without instant information diffused across the world. And a new emerging global division of labour of production around the world, which companies like Wal-Mart exploit so well, is only possible because such companies can be sensitive to a diversity of conditions across the world. But, having said all that, I don't think we yet know the full implications of all of this for systems of human organisation. I think we're at the beginning of a great change and not at the end of it. Hegel very wisely says, in The Philosophy of Right, something like ‘the owl of Minerva flies at dusk'. In other words, wisdom comes with hindsight. We're not yet at the end of the day of these great changes. We're somewhere like in the early hours of the morning. So we don't know all their full ramifications.
There are two arguments one could surmise about democracy. On the one hand, you can say that there is clear evidence that these technologies allow the spread of self-organisation around the world. Think of the organisation of dispersed diasporas: people who were once living in one continent, or one country, and have spread across the world for various reasons, can now form and reform their identities through global communications. But not just that, NGO's of all kinds, civil society movements of all kinds, can organise and campaign. That means that Oxfam, Green Peace, the World Wildlife Fund, and so on, can organise campaigns on pressing issues globally, exploiting new interstices of politics that were never available before. So the Internet, to use shorthand, creates massive new capacities of communication for human interchange, and inevitably makes the idea of a richer form of democracy, including democratic autonomy, more plausible.
On the other hand, and there is another hand, new technologies can also fragment communication, they can also disperse it. They can all disperse human concerns into subgroups and more subgroups. They can also make it clear, not only what you and I have in common, but what peoples of the world don't have in common. Increased communication enhances the possibility of understanding, but it can also dramatically enhance an awareness of what we don't like about other people. So communication alone doesn't bring with it one promise. It's ambivalent, ambiguous in its consequences. At the end of the day, the challenge is to make something of this that enhances the quality of our lives. But human beings, especially in the twentieth-century, have certainly shown a dark capacity to not always bring out the best in each other. So whether we can move all these technologies in a positive direction, or whether they will fragment and subvert our systems and make them less accountable, is, I think, at this time hard to call. But I certainly stand here as an advocate for the first set of arguments. And Models of Democracy is a way of thinking about how we might harness some of these developments to deepen our democratic impulses.
BG: Can I ask what you make of those who look in a very disappointed way at the behaviours consequent upon the increase of digital technology? They see the impact of new technology as very individualising, and connect it so much to consumption and the consumer society in a straightforward way. There's something about people being more and more on their own with technology. One might think that was the opposite of a social sense, a sense of yourself as a member of a class, a sense of yourself as somebody with interests in common with a set of others, who engages socially and politically in pursuit of interests that you want to fight for.
DH: Zygmunt Bauman, the sociologist, writes brilliantly about the way in which the concept of Utopia has increasingly lost its historical meaning. Utopia was a concept which, in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, was evoked to help imagine a different kind of collective governance – a progressive ideal, which could be applied to the world we lived in and to inspire people to perhaps change the nature of their material social circumstances. But, whereas once Utopia was a notion which inspired collective solutions, Bauman says that increasingly today, Utopia means an individual option, an individual exit strategy from the world in which we live. If you put Utopia into Google, you might get a travel company offering exotic holidays; a very exciting computer game; a perfume or hair lotion. It's the name today for helping individuals to withdraw from the world, and to find individual solutions to otherwise overwhelming pressing social problems. This is certainly a strong tendency. But I think that's too pessimistic a reading of where we are. I think where we are is much more complex, much more fluid and, as it were, there's everything to argue for.
BG: Okay. Well I'm glad we've disposed of technological determinism there! My final question to you David, is: having made this enormous journey through the history of democracy, and its thousand varied manifestations in institutional contexts, I wonder what troubles you most as a theorist of democracy about politics today?
DH: I think that there are always two sides to consider. I am certainly troubled by the growth of modern consumerism, and the incessant concern that many of us have with finding individual solutions to common collective problems, because I think this does create disengagement with politics broadly. It creates a sense that only in things we buy and things we consume we can find happiness. It abandons the public domain to private interest groups, and those with the most power, and it breeds a cynicism about politics. I think these are all familiar features of our age. Adding to that the sense that globalisation creates forces in our lives that are beyond our control, whether it be to a citizen of the UK, Holland, France, or China, Japan, or wherever in the world, compounds the notion that we're living increasingly in a world that Anthony Giddens calls the ‘Runaway World'. And he even likens that world to a juggernaut: ‘the world is like a juggernaut out of control on the motorway'. I think that these combinations of concerns carry depth and poignancy. It could be that democracy is an idea from the era of the city-states and nation-states, which has become increasingly dysfunctional in an age so complex and individualistic, an age in which systematic forms of accountability can no longer be meaningfully operationalised across large social and political spaces. I don't take that view. But some people have. The German social theorist, Niklas Luhmann, for example, believed that, increasingly at the end of the twentieth-century, the seventeenth-century notions of democracies as appropriate ways of binding rulers and ruled together have become dysfunctional in a global age. I take the other view. I take the view that these are challenges and these are very serious challenges. But we shouldn't use the weaknesses of democracy, or of our multilateral institutions, as excuses for further weakening them. In the age in which we live I think that those who've defended the project of a military response to 9/11, and a military response to the problem of democracy, say in the Middle East, have weakened our systems of accountability, have weakened our systems of rules, and have weakened international law and regulation. I take another view, that we have other choices. That wisdom dictates that we must recognise our interconnectedness, and the limited nature of any one contribution we can make to collective solutions. And that without democratically discussed collective solutions we leave our world to be defined by overwhelming private interests, or the most powerful states. And if you don't want the world to be a McDonalds world or Coca-Cola world, and if you don't want the world affairs to be determined by the G7 or the G8, then it is beholden on us to create new imaginative solutions to lead down another road. ‘ Models of Democracy ' is a contribution to that discussion.
BG: Thank you very much. I know our readers will enjoy the discussion as much as I have.
“Models is the kind of established classic which both demands and merits revision every decade or so. The new chapter on deliberative democracy for the third edition, concise and perceptive as always, maintains Held's reputation at the forefront of democratic thinkers today.”
— David Beetham, University of Leeds