Democracy Past and Future

Democracy Past and Future

by Pierre Rosanvallon

This book is the first English-language collection of Pierre Rosanvallon's most important essays on the historical origins, contemporary difficulties, and future prospects of democratic life. Rosanvallon proposes new readings of the history, aims, and possibilities of democratic theory and practice and provides unique theoretical understandings of key moments in

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This book is the first English-language collection of Pierre Rosanvallon's most important essays on the historical origins, contemporary difficulties, and future prospects of democratic life. Rosanvallon proposes new readings of the history, aims, and possibilities of democratic theory and practice and provides unique theoretical understandings of key moments in democracy's trajectory, from the French Revolution and the struggles for universal suffrage to European unification and the crises of the present. In so doing, he lays out an influential new theory of how to write the history of politics. Rosanvallon's historical and philosophical approach examines the "pathologies" that have curtailed democracy's potential and challenges the antitotalitarian liberalism that has dominated recent political thought. He adroitly combines historical and theoretical analysis with an insistence on the need for a new form of democracy and ultimately asks what democracy means when the people who rule are nowhere to be found.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews


This is an excellent book for both specialists in political theory and political activists... Highly recommended.

Inside Higher Ed.

A long overdue introduction to a figure who defies both sound bites and the familiar academic division of labor.

Inside Higher Ed..
A long overdue introduction to a figure who defies both sound bites and the familiar academic division of labor.

Product Details

Perseus (for Columbia University Press)
Publication date:
Political Thought / Political History Series
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.81(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Democrary Past and Fu

By Pierre Rosanvallon

Columbia University Press

Copyright © 2006 Columbia University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13740-0

Chapter One

Repoliticizing Democracy

The sketch I have offered of indirect democracy suggests, in the very terms of its exposition, what might be the next steps in this unprecedented stage of the progress of democracy. Far from conceiving of democracy as already realized, an already saved up capital now simply there to conserve, my approach forces the stress to fall on the paradox that the growth of social power, in essentially negative modes, has come linked to forms of the hollowing of the political. The response to undertake, on the basis of the foregoing understanding, has two components: the institutionalization and rationalization of the forms of indirect democracy on the one hand and its politicization on the other.

The first is easiest to grasp. It would involve the more methodical organization of the diverse kinds of oversight or rejection that exist today essentially in the form of informal social powers. To give only one possible example, citizen rating agencies could regularly evaluate the actions of certain public organisms. Indeed, there are many projects to imagine in this sphere. The second component of democratic progress to put in action, the politicization of indirect democracy, is the most importantand the most difficult. For the challenge is to create what one might call democratic projects, to conceive political activity as the continuous action of society on itself and not simply as a series of episodic interventions.

In this framework, there is a whole range of practical works of resymbolization, of the production of generality, of translation, and of the interpretation of reality that has to be undertaken. Against exceptionalist conceptions of the political, the return of the political would have to be understood as proceeding from an ensemble of actions and discourses for producing commonality and making the system of social interactions both more legible and more visible. Giving meaning back to politics, then, cannot take place in the first instance through the elaboration of a doctrine or overall project. It is above all a matter of publicly reconstituting and exposing, in order to pave the way for their evaluation and modification, the effective modes by which the social system is produced. There is a work to be shouldered of writing and publication that in this regard amounts to the very foundation of the political. It would aim to give a vocabulary to social experience and to outline for it the framework in which it takes on meaning-and thus allow for it to reform itself. The enterprise of the politicization of indirect democracy thus calls for an authentic rediscovery of ordinary politics, conceived in terms that are at once simple, radical, and profound.

These perspectives, which can barely be glimpsed in this presentation of a work to be carried out, could allow for the political horizon of the left to be restored in three ways. First, they would give new tasks to the democratic ideal, saving them from the flat and restorationist nostalgia of a golden age of civic life. The point would be not so much to denounce the accretions on a system believed to be workable in itself or to wish to be free of its ponderous complexity (and therefore simply to call for the erection of stronger, more participatory, or more deliberative institutions). Rather, the hope would be to find practical engagements in a democracy conceived as a social activity. Democracy, to put it in the terms of some of the Greeks reread by Michel Foucault at the end of his life, is more a matter of a permanent dietetic care than of anatomic and orthopedic curiosity. This approach might lead, in the second place, to a communion of the ideals of democracy with those of socialism. Historically, the first have above all been defined in procedural terms, while the second have been thought about in a substantive fashion. If politics is conceived, however, as the work of society on itself, then the experimentation with differences that makes it up is also its heart. Substance and procedure blend, in the end, to make democratic progress connect with the deepening of the exigency for social justice.

The perspective of a repoliticization of democratic life allows, third and finally, for the relations between national democracy and cosmopolitan democratic forms to be imagined in a new and different way. The usual understanding of this relationship consists in thinking in terms of a transfer, that is to say of a reproduction at a higher level of forms of regulation first achieved in the national forum. The notion of indirect democracy, however, suggests a mode of political regulation that is neither that of institutional government, nor that of the governance associated with the function of the market and the extension of the rule of law. It is in terms of the constitution of an indirect democracy at the international level that one might therefore define a final operational program. It is an indirect democracy still taking its first steps, and that has to be both developed as a collection of social powers (through the action of NGOs and diverse international organizations) and institutionalized in order that powers of oversight, control, or rejection might see the light of day. The objective will have to be, in this spirit, to develop "democratic projects" of the community of nations to keep ever present the force of justice and law.

In sum, the goal is to pursue simultaneously, on different scales, democratic progress and the construction of a cosmopolitan order. But while such convergence has often been conceived in the weak sense of a generalized dissemination of power, of a multiplication of forms of governance without government (whether in the dreamlike manner of a globalization of good feeling or in the more exalted mode of an epiphany of revolt), the task is to discover how to pursue it as the expression of an exigency that is strong and realist at once.


Excerpted from Democrary Past and Fu by Pierre Rosanvallon Copyright © 2006 by Columbia University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Jean Cohen

This is an important book demonstrating the brilliance and relevance of Pierre Rosanvallon's work. It is high time that more of his writings were made available to an English-reading public. Everyone interested in democratic theory and practice should read this book.

Michael Sandel

Pierre Rosanvallon is a remarkable political thinker who sheds new light on the theory and practice of democracy. This collection brings his important work to an English-speaking audience. It will enrich our understanding of the perils and possibilities of democratic politics.

Charles Taylor

This collection gives... a very readable sample of the work of one of today's most original and insightful political thinkers. Rosanvallon's careful historical reconstructions and penetrating contemporary analyses together bring into view immensely fruitful and illuminating new perspectives on today's problems and their historical genesis.

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