Participatory Democracy and the Under-Represented

Rocco Buttiglione | PASS Academician

Participatory Democracy and the Under-Represented

First of all, I shall present some reflections on the nature and the genesis of a Participatory Society. Then, I shall address the problem of representation and under-representation in our society.

The human person is an intelligent and free being who acts freely and is responsible for her own actions.[1] The human person has a body and lives in an organic interchange with her environment, from which the means of her subsistence are derived. These means are obtained through human labor. Labor is applied to raw materials that need to be transformed, and requires instruments.

No man can survive alone. We need the cooperation of other human beings in order to survive and, most importantly, in order to lead a truly human life. This cooperation regards the defense of the right to life and freedom, the order of property on the goods of the earth, the raw materials and the instruments that make work possible, the cooperation in the working process of different human beings, the exchange of the products of their work and the order of contracts. Last but not least, men do not create themselves, but they are generated through sexual intercourse between a mother and the father – or so has been the case until now. The same mother and father take care of their children until their maturity, and this creates an order of parenthood and of the family.

Many of the actions required for human survival on earth demand the cooperation of a plurality of subjects. It must be added that Adam Smith convincingly explained that the productivity of human labor grows with an increased division of labor.[2] The question then arises: how can the human subject participate in a social action and exercise his moral responsibility for that action, without losing his freedom? Participation is exactly the answer to this question.

Since the beginning of political philosophy the following problem has been considered: how can human cooperation on a large scale be organized? In principle, there are two possible answers: top down and bottom up. Top down: one (or a few) command and rule; bottom up: all participate in the decision process. It is apparent that only the second answer preserves the moral responsibility of the person for her own action. The first answer demands the total alienation of the rights of the person in society, in order to make the social action possible. The second answer tries to build up a communitarian subject in which all participate in the decisions that are of common concern. Participation is the alternative to alienation.[3]

The approach we have been proposing is an alternative to a merely utilitarian approach, in which participation can be justified based upon the fact that, collectively, we possess greater information than we would individually, and if we coordinate all this information, we can reach better decisions that increase the welfare of a larger number of people.[4] Instead, our argument stresses the fact that participation corresponds to the inherent dignity of the human person, helping her grow as a person through the exercise of her intelligence and free will. This is rooted in the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, the fulfillment of the person’s vocation to become perfect as a person.[5] To this perfection also pertains the fact of creating a community or a civil friendship. Through participation we do not always manage our common affairs: we become a community and this is also an essential feature of our being persons. The greatest welfare for the greatest number can also be achieved by sacrificing the fundamental rights of some members of society, and seems to be indifferent to the problem of a fair distribution of resources and opportunities. The eudemonistic principle is not in itself egalitarian, but it considers the good of each member of the community as being a part of the good of each and every member, or rather, it considers the existence of a Good of the community as such. This is not something different from the good of the individual, since being a member of the community is something that pertains to the essence of the person. Just to give one example: a husband cannot be happy if his wife is unhappy; he can only define his happiness in relation to her happiness or by incorporating her happiness within his own happiness.

We have sketched the most essential traits of a theory of participation taking for granted a certain idea of the human person that we derive from the classical tradition (Aristotle) reinterpreted in a Jewish/Christian context (Boethius, St. Thomas Aquinas), and we have derived from this idea of the human person also a certain idea of a participatory society. We have been following a long tradition in political philosophy whose origin can be tracked back to Plato: Society is just Man written in large letters. The idea of society we have is strictly dependent upon the idea that we have of man.

Aristotle, Boethius and St. Thomas Aquinas were philosophers with a strong leaning towards metaphysics.[6] They were not sociologists or social psychologists. They considered the fundamental structures of the human person to be ontologically given. They constituted a presupposition for the action and they revealed themselves through their actions.

The approach developed by contemporary human sciences, to a large extent under the impulse of Sigmund Freud and his disciples, is significantly different. Freud tells us that the human subject is the result of a process, something that, to a certain extent, is “made” by the social, moral and educational process. The factory in which man is produced is the human family.[7] Here we learn to obey rules and to question the reasonability of those rules. The unconditional sympathy of our mother, coupled with our search for happiness, nurtures our self-esteem and our self-confidence. The norm set by our father’s word teaches us that our actions have consequences and we must bear responsibility for the consequences of our actions. And, in pursuing our happiness, we must also take into account the legitimate demands of our brothers and sisters for happiness. By watching the way our parents participate in each other’s lives and take care of us and of our siblings, we learn to incorporate the good of others in our concept of good. In short, we learn the art of love. The family order shapes our personalities and makes us capable of participation.[8] The institution of marriage transforms Eros into Agape.[9] The capacity of interiorizing in ourselves the person of the other is not simply a given, it may be more or less adequately developed according to the first and constitutive experiences the subject has undergone in the early stages of his existence. The commonly accepted patterns of family life and the institutionalized form of marriage create the kind of personality that is considered “normal” and that will be present more often in any given environment.

All of the above will not be considered strange by any true disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas. One of the fundamental tenets of the metaphysics of potency and act is exactly that nihil protest de potentia deduci in actum nisi per aliquot ens in actu[10] (what is in potency can be brought into act only through the action of a being in act). The child’s ontological potential embarks on a path of self-realization, through the action of the educating parents. This action regards the relation of each parent to the child but, first and foremost, also the quality of the relationship they have between themselves.

Sometimes we hear that neither the State nor the Church should meddle with what consenting adults do under their bed sheets. This is perhaps not entirely true, because the transformation of Eros into Agape generates the energy invested in working for the family and for society and it also shapes the personality of the children and, therefore, society at large.

When we speak about the quest for a Participatory Society we should not exclude from the scope of our research the problem of building a kind of personality which naturally adopts participation as a lifestyle and is readily integrated in the structures of a Participatory Society or, rather, is a spontaneous and active creator of a Participatory Society.

In the Christian tradition, this idea of participation is easily connected with the idea of Communion, as Msgr. Minnerath wisely points out in his contribution to this Session. Participation is an essential feature of the Christian personality, a social reflex of the ontological reality of Communion.

It is perhaps not inopportune to now ask the following question: are we currently educating personalities who are capable of participation, or is the capacity of our societies for participation decreasing rather than increasing? It is not easy to answer this question.

On the one hand, we know that in our Western societies more and more children are born out of wedlock and are raised by single parents, we see that many marriages are dissolved by divorce, and the loving unity of the parental couple, as the spiritual uterus in which the child is contained until it comes of age, cannot be taken for granted.

On the other hand, we should not idealize all too easily yesterday’s world. Husbands often cheated on their wives and abused of their power within the family, whilst women resented their condition of inequality and developed strong feelings of resentment. The complicated process of sublimation of the originally sensual energy of the child required a fair amount of repression, for it to be canalized towards culturally valuable targets, and that process was often difficult, uncompleted and left residues in the form of neurosis.[11]

It remains true, however, that the ideal of Western moral and political philosophy, in which the man, by defining the end of his action encompasses also the legitimate demands of other human beings, has its preconditions in the structure of the family. G.W.F. Hegel expresses this ideal in the form of the coincidence of the universal and the particular.[12] Kant, instead, demands that the individual acts according to a principle that can be assumed as a maxim of universal legislation.[13] Max Horkheimer has pointed out the relation obtained between this principle and the structure of the family.[14] Pierpaolo Donati and Margaret Archer have reformulated the same concept in their relational sociology.[15]

It seems to me that today it is important to stress the fact that the capacity for participation is first reared in the family, in order to see the essential connection between the mission of the Church to defend the moral order of the family, and the efforts to expand or to defend a participatory society. It happens very often, in the current political discourse, that this link is either not seen or the family is seen as a surpassed institution destined to wither out in the Participatory Society of tomorrow. It is an old idea held by Friedrich Engels, that other social institutions would, in time, take over the social functions of the family.[16] Up to now, this has not happened: the family has been weakened but not substituted and, as a result, the capacity of our societies for participation seems to be decreasing rather then increasing. Individuals that are not adequately socialized within the family tend not to constitute communities and to just fend for themselves. Cicero left us the following sentence: familia seminarium reipublicae (the family is the place in which the political community is generated).[17] He meant precisely that individuals that are not properly socialized tend to form a mass rather than a community, and masses are governed by tyrants rather than by Republican institutions.

A Participatory Democracy is based on a system of mediation. Individuals with converging and differing social interests are allowed to participate in a free discussion, and in the end a decision has to be made. The fact that this process will result in a decision cannot be taken for granted. A Participatory Democracy presupposes that those who hold different social interests have a common intention to preserve the political community, in which a decision has to be made. This implies that they will try to formulate their particular interest in a way that is compatible with the interests of the other components of that same society, and they will accept an agreed procedure in order to reach a common decision. As a rule, this procedure implies a majority vote, sometimes with the provision of particular quorums. This leads to the formation of coalitions of interests; one of them will be the majority and the other (or others) the minority. The system works if the majority does not push its advantage too far, and if the minority is willing to accept the decision because of a strong sentiment of loyalty to the political community and/or because of a lack of alternatives.[18] There are always, however, some non-negotiable interests that are kept out of the ordinary decision-making process. In the European continent this is guaranteed through the so-called rigid constitutions defended by Constitutional Courts. If a majority violates fundamental constitutional rights, its decisions can be annulled.[19] The purpose is to guarantee that, in the end, everyone can live with the decisions made by the constitutional organs, and that the minority will not feel threatened in some vital interests or convictions. The political body lives in a delicate balance between representation and decision. No decision is made without the participation of all those who are interested in the decision.[20] But also, no participation without decision: participation cannot become an end in itself, in the end a decision has to be made.

What happens in some modern democracies is that it becomes more and more difficult to create majority coalitions and, on the other hand, minorities tend to expand the area of the interests they consider vital and non-negotiable. This results in a paralysis of the decisional process. In some countries (Italy for example) there is an attempt at institutional reforms that privilege the governability over the representation. This means, for instance, to create electoral systems that give to the strongest coalition, although it expresses not an absolute but only a relative majority of the popular vote, a majority of seats in Parliament. The purpose is to make it possible to govern with less participation and less consent. This solution, of course, runs against the demand for participation but should not be dismissed too easily: participation is a value, but democracies must produce decisions. If they do not, society will not be governed, and sooner or later, an authoritarian regime will ensue. In many societies the demand for more efficiency overcomes that of more participation.[21] The problem is: how can we ensure an efficient participation, that is, a participation that produces decisions?

A first answer to this question has already been suggested in the first part of this lecture: we need personalities with a stronger orientation towards the community, with a deeper sense of belonging, so that minorities accept the majority decisions and majorities do not abuse the majority rule, but this, of course, requires a cultural reorientation of our societies that can take place only in the long term.

A second answer can be found through an analysis of the way in which our Western democracies work. Once upon a time, the political debate was dominated by a discussion on the best forms of political organization. This debate underlined the connection between politics and ethics and regarded the forms of political organization that better corresponded to the nature of man. Since then, however, we have entered into a post-ideological era and the current political debate is much less interested in the idea of good societies. What we demand of politics is the efficient distribution of goods and services to citizens. This is not something totally new. Luciano Canfora has convincingly claimed that the political life of Greek democracies centered around a demand of redistribution in favor of the poor.[22] The demand for redistribution, however, can easily come into conflict with the necessity of distributing the social product in a way that makes it possible to reproduce the living conditions of society. A good example is given in the Acts of the Apostles. In the first Christian Community the wealthy sold all they had and distributed it to the poor who lived off this redistribution.[23] In a comparatively short time, the Community was broke. St. Paul collected alms among the new communities, among the pagans, to relieve those of Jerusalem, but formulated the rather harsh rule: those who do not want to work should not eat.[24] In a well functioning society, a large part of the social product has to be used to reproduce material capital and the infrastructure, and also the part devoted to consumption needs to be distributed in a way that rewards the different performances of individuals. The great success of Western democracies was due, to a large extent, to the fact that they enjoyed, for many years, very high rates of economic growth. This made it possible, at the same time, to adequately reward productivity and to carry out generous redistributive policies. When the Gross National Product grows 3% per year it is possible to organize the political debate around the question: what social reform shall we make in this legislature? Shall we raise pensions, improve healthcare or subsidize low paying jobs?

This mechanism does not work any more.[25] The reason is that poor countries have entered into the world market, have started working by making use of the comparative advantage of their very low wages and have acquired growing shares of international commerce and wealth. The margin for redistribution of the old democracies has been strongly reduced. This is the cause of our malaise and the reason why our old political machinery does not work any more. We have no benefits to distribute. Rather, the political class faces the task of redistributing sacrifices. As a result, large parts of the electorate are willing to go back to the world of yesterday and are ready to follow populist movements that promise generous redistributive policies, that are no longer possible, or that promise to close borders by instating protectionist policies that exclude the new countries from our markets and hamper their possibilities of emerging from poverty. This also produces an extreme polarization. Those whose income was supported by the state expect, of course, their living standards at least to be maintained. Those who support redistributive policies through their taxes want them to be reduced or repealed altogether. This distinction does not correspond exactly to that between the rich and the poor. We have expanded large public bureaucracies with comparatively high paying jobs that are subsidized by taxpayers. It is doubtful whether our democracies will survive for long if we do not succeed in reactivating the process of economic growth. In order to do this, however, we need to activate all of society’s energy around a political project that, in the initial stages, will not deliver benefits but will demand a strong idealistic engagement. Whether we will be able to produce this remains unclear.[26]

Now we want to devote our attention to the problem of underrepresentation. Who are the underrepresented? We will try to answer this question in a way that mostly refers to Western societies.

A first kind of underrepresentation is due to our ageing societies. We have few children and a growing number of old people.[27] Children, moreover, do not vote. Our policies are dominated by the points of view and the interests of older generations. We tend to spend more on pensions than on investments to create jobs for the new generations; we tend to accumulate public debt to finance a generous public expenditure that will be paid for by those who are young today, we tend to exhaust non-renewable natural resources rather than protect our environment.

A large number of people do not have children, and many of those who do have children do not have a positive relationship with them because their family was dissolved and they have lost all affective connection to their children. Those who have children (and grandchildren) tend to consider the distant future and the environment in which their children and grandchildren will live. Those who do not tend to restrict their concerns to a foreseeable time in their lives. The temporal horizon of the electorate is narrowed; there is a mentality that is spontaneously drawn to the short term. In the past, each generation left to the next a social and material capital that was larger than the one they had inherited from their ancestors. For the first time, we are faced with a society that leaves to the following generation more debts than capital. The reasons of the youth, the voice of the future, of the environment are underrepresented in our European societies. A significant portion of people in Western societies lives out of public expenditures in a large and growing public sector. These people are more actively interested in politics because their jobs and their careers are directly or indirectly dependent upon political decisions. They tend to be more than proportionally represented in the political debate. They demand an expansion of goods and services offered to citizens by the state. This demand is linked, however, to that of an expansion of the bureaucracies that administer the social intervention of the state.[28]

The others, those who live and work in the private sector, are comparatively less represented. They are a majority and through the fiscal system they carry the weight of the public budget, but they are less active politically and tend to feel frustrated. This is one main reason for the upsurge of populist movements.

The middle class tends to feel underrepresented. Globalization has produced a decrease in global poverty, but, at the same time, it has created a polarization in Western societies. Whilst the enormous gap between rich and poor countries has been narrowing, in Western societies the divide between the winners and losers of globalization has been widening. The losers of globalization, the frustrated middle classes, are underrepresented in the sense that they still have not found a way to formulate a political program that really tackles their problems. The economic, social, cultural and political elites have refused to see the dark sides of globalization and the losers – that is, the Western middle classes – do not have credible representatives and do not succeed in formulating a reliable political program. This is dangerous for our democracies because the enraged middle classes are increasingly prey to populist demagogues who offer easy, common sense and wrong solutions to difficult problems, that might easily lead us back to an age of confrontations between closed commercial and political blocks and, in the worst case scenario, of war. Here we have an underrepresentation of majorities, or potential majorities, in the most developed countries. Populism used to be a political phenomenon that belonged to underdeveloped countries, but now we have populism in wealthy countries that run the risk of losing their wealth and welfare.[29] This may be extremely dangerous because it can influence the behavior of political leaders who bear the greatest decision-making power for peace or war, for good or evil, for economic growth or regression of all of mankind. Here the cause of underrepresentation is not a lack of electoral or political power, but rather a lack of cultural and political vision.

Antonio Gramsci, who was a Marxist but, being Italian, was not entirely bad and understood a lot about politics, made an important distinction between a rough or corporate or immediate representation of the interests of a social class or group, and a political, mediated, hegemonic representation. A political representation is one that can include in the definition of one’s own interest the interest of other social groups or classes as well; creating an alliance or a coalition of interests. If a proper coalition cannot be created, one can at least define the finalities of one’s own actions in such a way that they do not come into conflict with the vital interests of others. In Gramsci, the hegemonic principle is a tool to create a coalition to fight against another coalition.[30]

Some might be surprised to know that the same idea, in a revised and enlarged form, can be found in Pope St. John XXIII’s Encyclical Pacem in Terris. According to the great Pontiff, peace is the first and foremost purpose, the telos, the entelecheia or form of politics as such, and this holds true even more in a period in which, due to the development of mass destruction weapons, war may easily lead to the destruction of mankind. We need therefore to formulate the interests of the social groups to which we belong or the national interest of our countries in a way that make them compatible with the legitimate interests of other social groups or countries. The coalition St. John XXIII wanted to create included the whole of mankind. It was not a coalition against somebody, but a coalition for something. In Populorum Progressio, Blessed Paul VI further elucidates this common purpose: it is the integral growth of humanity. Today in the passage from Centesimus Annus to Caritas in Veritate to Evangelii Gaudium we have a further qualification: the finality becomes to orient and govern globalization in order to allow all countries and all of humanity to grow together. In this connection I would like to mention Chiara Lubich, who translated the doctrine of the Popes into the concept of politics as a service to the unity of mankind.[31] We should not underestimate the impact that this vision has had on global politics and also on global institutions. All the more alarming is the fact that mayor political forces today strive to formulate their particular interest, national or social alike, in a non mediated and non political way, or at least in a way that is not political, along the lines of Pacem in Terris and of the following encyclicals. They seem to reintroduce a different concept of politics, that of Carl Schmitt, according to whom politics is, first of all, the decision that divides the world in two: friend and foe.[32] Therefore, politics needs foes, or at least takes into account the possibility of creating them.

Conflict, of course, is a fundamental part of any realistic approach to politics, and the Church knows this all too well.[33] However, the real issue is: do we want to find reasonable compromises and peaceful solutions in which all participants see their fundamental interests and values recognized and respected? Or do we want to impose our particular interests? I have nothing in principle against the slogan “Italy (or Germany, or Nigeria, or whatever other country) first”. It is all too natural that I should wish my country to excel in the world in all possible fields, from football to scientific research to economic performance. I feel uncomfortable, however, when I have the feeling that what this slogan really means is “my country first and who cares about the rest”, or (as I have sometimes heard) “the devil will take care of the others”. If such approaches really become dominant, then we will move back to the world before Pacem in Terris, where globalization becomes a struggle for life or death and, in the end, the danger of war looms large.

Machiavelli (another Italian who was not thoroughly bad and had a keen understanding of politics) put on paper the fundamental principle of a realist democracy: people always make the right decisions if a responsible political class and a wise institutional system propose clear alternatives and explain the possible consequences of the course of action taken.[34] In thinking of a Participatory Democracy, we should never forget the problem of the anthropological and cultural presuppositions of a Participatory Democracy. The purpose of this contribution was precisely to draw attention to this point.


End notes

[1] S.Th. I-II, q. 17, a. 5 ad 2.
[2] Adam Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (MetaLibri Digital Factory, 2007): 8ff.
[3] Karol Wojtyła, “Participation or Alienation” in Analecta Husserliana 6(61) (1977), 61ff.
[4] Isael Kirzner, Market Theory and the Price System. vol. 2. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc, 2011).
[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1097a (n.d.), 15ff.
[6] For an in-depth analysis of the metaphysical notion of participation see Cornelio Fabro, Partecipazione e Casualità Secondo S. Tommaso d’Aquino, Opere Complete, 19 (EDIVI, Segni, 2010).
[7] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (Basic Books, 2010), 247ff., 286ff.
[8] Max Horkheimer, “Authoritarianism and the Family Today”, in The Family, its Function and Destiny, ed. Ruth N. Anshen (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949).
[9] Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1st ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006), 3ff.
[10] S.Th. I, q. 79, a. 3 co.
[11] Cfr. Sigmund Freud “Civilization and its Discontents”, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, volume XXI (1927-1931).
[12] Georg W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, 1st ed., n.d., 13.
[13] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993) 30.
[14] M. Horkheimer, “Authoritarianism and the Family Today” in The Family: Its Function and Destiny (New York, 1949).
[15] Pierpaolo Donati & Margaret Archer, The Relational Subject (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
[16] Friedrich Engels, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” in Karl Marx/Freidrich Engels Collected Works, vol. 26 (New York: International Publishers, 1990).
[17] Cicero, De Officiis I, 54.
[18] Anthony J. McGann, The Logic of Democracy: Reconciling Equality, Deliberation and Minority Protection (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
[19] Costantino Moratti, “Costituzione (Dottrine Generali)” in Enciclopedia del Diritto, IX, (Milano, 1962).
[20] This is a slightly adjusted version of the slogan that penetrated the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation”.
[21] Giovanni Sartori, Comparative Constitutional Engineering (New York: New York University Press, 1994).
[22] Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History of an Ideology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
[23] Acts of the Apostles, 2, 44ff.
[24] St. Paul, Thessalonians 2, 3, 10ff.
[25] Carles Boix, Democracy and Redistribution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
[26] Rocco Buttiglione, La Sfida, Soveria Mannelli, Rubettino, 2012.
[27] As far as I know, the first to draw attention to this trend was S.H. Preston, “Children and the Elderly in USA”, Scientific American, 1 December 1984.
[28] As far as I know, the first to draw attention to this trend was John O’Connor, The Fiscal Crisis of the State, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970).
[29] D. Swank & H-G. Betz, Globalization, the Welfare State and right-wing Populism in Western Europe, in Socio-Economic Review (2003:) 1, 215ff.