Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge: Preface
 

Preface


Pluralism, Democracy, and Political Knowledge could be read as part of a study on the political consequences of modernization, and the need and the prospect to rehabilitate politics in a modernized society. I started this project in the 1990s as a fellow of the Royal Netherlands Academy of the Arts and Sciences. Freedom and Culture in the Western World (1997) and Modernization and its Political Consequences: Weber, Mannheim and Schumpeter (2006) were two of its products. Another one will be a book on democratic deliberation and policymaking, a book which takes the work of Charles E. Lindblom as a point of departure. All books share a number of leitmotivs. The most important of these is the question which democratic possibilities modern citizens (still) have to give, in a common effort, direction to their society. This is an essential element of political freedom. In my view, the political discontent or malaise that typifies most contemporary democracies, is mainly caused by the widely shared feeling that this political freedom has become rather limited. This discontent can only diminish when we become, to a much higher extent than today, master over the development of our society, and, partly as a result of this, over our personal life. Therefore, this project has the umbrella title A Rehabilitation of Politics. By focusing on the structures (bureaucracies, markets) and processes (rationalization, individualization, differentiation) which cause our diminishing democratic possibilities, and by focusing on the structures and processes that could enhance these possibilities, I hope to counterweight the tendency in the current debate on democratic discontent to stress factors like citizenship, social capital, political corruption, sour media, et cetera.

In Pluralism, Democracy, and Political Knowledge I analyze the pluralist conception of politics and democracy, as formulated by, above all, Robert A. Dahl. Dahl is generally considered as one of the founders of postwar political pluralism and as one of the most important political scholars and democratic theorists of the last half century. The pluralist conception of politics and democracy is imbued with modernity and was dominant within political science for decades. The same goes for the historically related behavioralist model of science. Although pluralism has been strongly criticized within political science and has lost its dominant position within this discipline, many of the pluralist assumptions and doctrines have become generally accepted within actual, everyday politics. The individualization, differentiation and rationalization that characterize modern societies are also preeminently taken as point of departure by the political theory of pluralism. Therefore, the analysis of the powerlessness that, according to many, typifies our current political systems can excellently be conducted within the theoretical framework of pluralism.

The integration of Pluralism, Democracy, and Political Knowledgeis to an important degree based on the chronological development of the thinking on pluralism in general and the thinking of Dahl in particular. More precisely, this book tells the story of pluralism above all via the work of Dahl and the criticism it has incited. As such, the book could be read as an intellectual biography of Dahl’s pluralism. Although his standing as a political thinker is undisputed, such a biography did not exist yet. But by concentrating on Dahl one is also able to tell the rather complex story of pluralism, democratic theory and political science during the largest part of the twentieth century: he played a pivotal role in many discussions or his work is representative for one of the fundamental standpoints in these discussions. Such a complex story needs a structure, and the themes of Dahl’s work give this structure. Because both pluralism and behavioralism were the most important thinking models during the formative years of political science, Pluralism, Democracy, and Political Knowledge thus also gives a critical overview of the history of this discipline until about the seventies: what ambitions did political scientists have? To what extent are these realized? And which epistemological problems impede or block the realization of these ambitions?

Hence, Dahl is the point of reference in the following, but via Dahl almost all important issues with respect to democracy, political pluralism, political science and political knowledge are examined. This organization of the argument has another important advantage. ‘Pluralism’ as a neatly defined, consistent and coherent theory hardly exists, no matter how hard some have tried to categorize a pluralist selection of people as such. If one wants to respect the complexity, the nuances, the transformations of social and political reality and of the thinking about this reality, one rather concentrates on the development of the thinking (under the influence of changing conditions and of criticism) of a pivotal theorist like Dahl.

Related to the above, in telling the story of pluralism and its critics, I stay close, often closer than has become usual, to the original texts. First and for all, I try to do justice to the intentions of the authors I am discussing. A discouraging part of the political science literature consists of misrepresentations and misinterpretations of the work of others. These are sometimes the result of ambiguities or obscurities of the original texts. Sometimes they are the result of sloppiness. But too often they also result from the wish for distinction or originality. Thus, positions never held by the criticized author(s) are created in such ways that one’s higher intelligence, morality or imagination becomes clearly manifest. The result of all this is a snowball of irrelevant and redundant literature that in the end is going nowhere.

The political theory of pluralism has definitely been a recurrent victim of this kind of snowballing. For instance, it has often been said, that often that it has almost become common sense, that theorists of pluralism like Dahl and Lindblom were building their thoughts on those of Joseph Schumpeter. Like Schumpeter, therefore, they favored an elitist conception of democracy with as less political participation and public deliberation as possible. However, as a close reading of the original discourse makes clear, the views of Schumpeter did not play any important role in the formation of pluralism in general and in that of the thinking of Dahl in particular. This role was invented at the beginning of the seventies and since then thoughtlessly taken over by the mainstream of political science. In reality pluralism has been formed by many different forerunners and influences and the influence of Schumpeter has been rather limited. Surprisingly, a sociologist like Karl Mannheim had a big impact, especially on the thinking of Dahl.

The wish for novelty and distinction is also one of the explanations for the widespread lack of knowledge of the historical development of our political thinking. This deficiency constitutes another cause of misreading and another obstacle for continuity and progress. A discussion of, for instance, Dahl’s views in 1950 on democratic decision making in the field of foreign policy, illustrates this. Many considerations Dahl formulated in his Congress and Foreign Policy about concentration of power, political manipulation, political participation and civic competence we encounter again in the debates on participatory democracy in the sixties and seventies, the debates on citizenship in the nineties and the current debates on social capital and deliberation. These considerations also help to put into perspective, for example, the democratic decision making on the war against Iraq. Thus, close readings of primary texts and the historical knowledge of one’s own discipline that comes with that, stay of utter importance for the formulating of original contributions to real progress.

But, as said, and as I explain in detail in the introduction, Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge hopes to offer more than an intellectual biography of Dahl, pluralism and political science via a prudent analysis of the primary discourse. It has two additional foci which structure the argument and which distinguish it from related books on pluralism and democracy.

First of all, it is analyzed what progress we have made over the years in our thinking on pluralism and democracy, and what progress we could make, taking into consideration the epistemological constraints of the human sciences. This explains too the title of the book (while “political knowledge” also refers to the discussions on civic competence and public deliberation).

The second additional focus is the process of modernization (individualization, differentiation and rationalization): the development and the problems of pluralism are analyzed in the context of this process. Specifically, to what degree does the process of modernization play a role in the current political malaise in those countries covered to an important degree by the political theory of pluralism?

Completing this book took longer than planned. Some things came in between: Kim, Jonah and Samuel, some inevitable removals, a migration, other jobs, other books. Life can be quite a distraction. But without these distractions the book would not have made much sense either. Along the road its completion was also furthered in direct ways. First of all, the many discussions I could have during my stays at Yale University with, in particular, Charles Lindblom, Robert Lane and Robert Dahl were priceless. In Holland I got much appreciated input from Ton Kreukels. In Germany the students of the Berlin Graduate School of the Social Sciences of Humboldt University who took my courses on ethical and political pluralism and on power not seldom made me rethink my positions. Valuable comments I also received from the reviewers of Ashgate. And last but not least from Talja. She saw it coming. Slowly.


Hans Blokland
Berlin 2011