Posted: July 15, 2014
A review of Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, by Benjamin Barber
wentieth-century liberals from Dewey to Rawls have attacked the foundations of liberalism so persistently that we can expect them to forgive Benjamin Barber, a nonliberal, for continuing this attack. Thus, although Barber, former editor of Political Theory and noted democratic theorist, makes no secret of his hostility to liberalism ("liberalism serves democracy badly if at all," p. xiv), he probably calculates right when he courts the favor or the acquiescence of our modern liberals. He assures them that he does not mean to attack liberalism (p. xi) and spares no effort to persuade them that he is the kind of man they can do business with, conceding that "strong democratic practice can only come as a modification of liberal democracy" and that "liberal anxieties" about direct democracy merit discussion (p. 262). Barber is even willing to grant to liberals that the "inertial force of the American Constitution," though not, of course, its underlying principles, might perform a useful, if ever-diminishing, function in checking possible democratic excesses.
The secret of Barber's ability to attack and befriend liberals at the same time may lie in their common taste for conversation that "responds to the endless variety of human experience" and that aims at "rich ambiguity rather than narrow clarity" (p. 185). Barber rejects clarity because it implies "clear winners and losers," and he observes this rejection quite profusely if not entirely consistently. The narrow-minded reader will likely be frustrated or wearied by Barber's many murky and effusive hymns to Strong Democracy, his praises of its mysterious power of "transformation" and of the delights of "public imagination" and "common consciousness." It is possible, however, to discern a rather clear intention behind this cloud of talk. Barber, unlike the liberals he seeks for allies, seems to know that the winners in politics are often those who think more clearly than they talk. By clarifying Barber's intention, we will see the tendency of contemporary liberalism more clearly than liberals see it; furthermore, Barber's critique of his liberal allies will show us why the alliance he seeks to lead ought to be opposed by all true friends of liberalism and of democracy.
That liberalism is in crisis Barber takes to be universally acknowledged. This crisis is visible, he reminds us in his preface, of the fact that the world has become ungovernable and that citizens everywhere are alienated. He dismisses the hope that a party realignment might once again give citizens control of their government; clearly the prospects for Barber's transformation depend on the opinion that a cure is impossible.
Part One of Strong Democracy consists in a diagnosis of the sickness of liberalism. He sums up this diagnosis in the observation that liberal democracy is "thin democracy"; that is, that liberalism does not value democracy as intrinsically good but only as a "means to exclusively individualistic and private ends" (p. 4). In order to value democracy intrinsically, we must liberate it from the "Newtonian" metaphysics and the "Cartesian" epistemology that stand behind it. Barber proposes to increase the value of democracy, not by supplying a more adequate metaphysical and epistemological foundation, but by renouncing metaphysics altogether, including the residual metaphysical assumptions of liberal epistemology. Thus Barber intends to "shift the burden of justification from the invisible to the visible world" (p. 44). To give democracy intrinsic value, it is thus necessary to accept the fact that "democracy may exist entirely without moral foundations . . ." (p. 65).
In Part Two, Barber offers his prescription for the "transformation" of liberalism, which consists essentially in the destruction of representative institutions. For Barber, the liberal preference for representation over participation is the institutional consequence of the liberal belief in some metaphysical truth behind politics, of the disposition liberals share with pre-liberals to represent the truth as something not made by human beings. This weakness, according to Barber, is shared by "unitary" or "totalistic" democracy, despite its nonrepresentative appearance. Barber's critique at first appears not to apply to "totalism" in its specifically modern form (what others would call "totalitarianism," a term Barber explicitly rejects), since modern totalitarianism does not appeal beyond the human will to man's "higher nature," that is, since it makes humanity the ultimate authority. But Barber points out that even modern totalism finally represents the people as an "impersonal abstraction," a predetermined "symbolic collectivity" such as "the nation" or "the Aryan race" or "the communal will" (p. 150). (Barber does not mention "society" or "history.") Strong Democracy will be the first true, direct democracy because it will place no "truth" between the people and political power. In Barber's New Age, public ends are "literally forged through the act of public participation. . . . Freedom is what comes out of this process, not what goes into it" (p. 152). Strong Democracy will dispense with "truth" by compelling citizens to see their individual interests "in the context of human interdependency," to learn "we-think" and to forget or overcome the private mode of thinking characteristic of a liberal age. And with a new way of thinking will come a new way of talking; vague and informal "talk" must replace articulate "speech," because speech implies the articulation of interests or of some other reality asserted to be outside human control and therefore non-negotiable.
Barber's rejection of "truth" and representation rests upon a view of human nature that he proposes as an alternative to the liberal view. He argues that the liberal understanding of human nature consists essentially in the assertion of the autonomous existence of the individual: "man mimicking the self-sufficient God he has rejected" (p. 71). The political meaning of this claim to self-sufficiency is, however, simply acquisitive selfishness. Barber is at his best in describing this paradoxical combination of godlike autonomy and animalistic egoism that lies at the heart of liberalism:
By apotheosizing individual consciousness and its defining creativity, [the anarchist disposition in liberalism] lends to our hedonistic impulses the dignity of higher purposes. By conceiving man as maker, it transforms the relentless search for power and for mastery over man and nature into an exercise in artistry and a scientific enterprise. In anarchism, the subhuman and the superhuman are confounded, to the advantage of hope. For in the less-than-human qualities of man the hedonist can be found more-than-human omens of man the divine (p. 81).
In proposing an alternative to the liberal god-beast, Barber seems for a moment to flirt with a traditional, "in-between" view of human nature. His purpose, however, is to reject the very idea of a constant human nature, but without simply falling back on the theory of the "social construction of man" with its collectivist or totalistic implications. What is needed is a "dialectical" view of man, and Barber finds such a "post-Marxist" theory ready to hand in the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The basis of Barber's argument-and, I will argue, of its failure to avoid "totalism"-is nowhere more clearly exhibited than in the following passage which he quotes from Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality:
"Man is biologically predestined to construct and inhabit a world with others. This world becomes for him the dominant and definitive reality. Its limits are set by nature, but once constructed, this world acts back upon nature. In the dialectic between nature and the socially constructed world, the human organism itself is transformed. In this same dialectic, man produces reality and thereby produces himself" (p. 215, 183).
Barber understands Strong Democracy as the political consequence of this dialectical theory. Strong Democracy embodies this dialectic when it "places human self-realization through mutual transformation at the center of the democratic process." This possibility of "mutual transformation" is the key to Barber's attempt to escape liberal individualism without positing some new "truth" and thus falling into "totalism." The genius of Strong Democracy, Barber claims, is that it rests neither on the "generic" (i.e., thin or instrumental) consensus of liberalism, nor on the "substantive" consensus of totalism, but on the "creative consensus" it makes and transforms (that is, destroys and remakes) for itself.
The essential defect of this argument and of the sociological theory on which it rests comes to light in examining Barber's understanding of his own role in the "dialectical" self-transformation of society. Readers still addicted to a narrow clarity will naturally ask: If Strong Democracy makes itself, then what is Benjamin Barber making? If it rests upon a "biologically predestined" historical "dialectic," then what is the point of Barber's theory? Barber's understanding of his own activity emerges briefly when he intends to discuss the "evolution" of language but, in fact, shows that language does not simply evolve but is controlled by the winners of successive battles to impose new "visions" or "paradigms." In a moment of candor, Barber clearly implies that he is engaged in just such a contest, but then immediately remembers the uses of unclarity and launches an attack on the "elites" who dominate our language. Barber would have us think that we are already collectively capable of controlling our language, of producing "reality" and therefore ourselves, or that we are all equally subject to the "evolution" of language and of reality. But before we can begin mutually to transform and to be transformed by our talk, Barber knows that he must transform the very way we talk. He must make us citizens fit for Strong Democracy by engineering a "permanent confrontation" (p. 153) that will peacefully or gradually compel us to trade in our opinions for negotiable and equal "values." Only the sacred "dialectical" theory itself will escape equalization. And the priest who creates and guards this shrine is the author of Strong Democracy himself; for him alone is the world imposed on others as "the dominant and definitive reality"- in the full sense, a human creation.
The confrontation must be permanent in order to keep the "inputs" equally subject to the "dominant and definitive reality" created by the dialectical theorist, for the (natural?) "human aspiration to certainty" (p. 130) always threatens to concoct yet another "truth" and thus to violate human "autonomy." The cost of freedom is the continual, collective war against nondemocratic values:
A moment's complacency may mean the death of liberty; a break in political concentration may spell the atrophy of an important value; a pleasant spell of privatism may yield irreversible value ossification. Democratic politics is a demanding business (pp. 190-91).
A demanding business indeed: We may hold beliefs only for the purpose of destroying them in the democratic process; opinions are grist for the relentless mill of Strong Democracy. This destruction is the effectual truth of Barber's "creative consensus."
Barber believes this destruction is "consciousness expanding." To be truly conscious for Barber is to destroy the "dominant and definitive reality" of the world we necessarily create, not by appealing to a higher reality, but simply by recognizing that the world is necessarily our creation. It would seem to follow that the world is no longer "dominant and definitive," and that Strong Democrats are more radically free as individuals than the anarchistic liberals Barber attacks. But the freedom the author of Strong Democracy offers to its citizens consists only in a consciousness of necessity; to emancipate the will of mankind he must teach individuals, or compel them to recognize, that their collective consciousness is the only reality, that it is futile to appeal beyond it. It follows that the essence of politics is neither simply selfishness nor "the selfless pursuit of a higher good" nor even something "in between." Rather, "'we are creatures who can be seen in . . . both of these seemingly incompatible ways. . .'" (p. 215, Barber quoting Hannah Pitkin). That is, our collective and biologically predestined selfishness takes the place formerly occupied by a "higher good"; Strong-Democratic mankind is the collective god-beast. But this new divinity is only fully self-conscious in the person of the Creator. Only Barber himself is free to savor the sublime consciousness of creating individually a world that becomes definitive reality for mankind as a whole. Barber is the liberal anarchist liberated from constitutional restraints.
Like Marx, Barber evokes the ideal of a society in which the free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all. However, again like Marx, he realizes that human consciousness will have to be transformed by political power under the guidance of the right theorists before this condition of freedom can be achieved. In seeking to transform what he says transforms itself, the founder of Strong Democracy exempts himself silently and perhaps unconsciously from humanity's universal confinement to the world it supposedly has no choice but to construct. This assertion of a political choice masked as historical necessity is the fundamental cause of the failure of Barber's attempt to attack liberalism without falling into totalism. The political evidence of this failure can be seen in Barber's plan for a corps of government-sponsored "transitional leaders" and "facilitators" represented at the highest level by a "special services corps" (pp. 237-42, and chapter 10) who will assure that individuals become citizens by being schooled in and then practicing the orthodox definition of fairness. (Barber assures us, of course, that these helpers of democracy will refrain from influencing the "substantive" outcome of "free" participation.)
Unlike Marx, however, and contrary to his own "dialectical" view of human nature, Barber is willing to admit that nature might always pose a problem for Strong Democracy. The people's autonomy from natural elites will always require the protective services of certain "facilitating" leaders, the representatives of the people's fairness. This helps us to understand why, for Barber, the political meaning of Berger and Luckmann's "dialectic between nature and the socially constructed world" is not the free or unrepresented evolution of society, but "the dialectical interdependence of man and his Government" (p. 215, my emphasis).
Barber fails to see his kinship with "totalism" because he fails to see his likeness to liberalism as he describes it. He believes liberals imitate the sovereignty of the God they have rejected, but clearly this applies with more force to Barber's autonomy than to Locke's natural liberty. He attacks the formalism of liberal psychology for putting method over substance (p. 47), and then immediately proposes to define truth as the outcome of a process (p. 65). He castigates the solipsistic notion that "to think is to be conscious of thinking, to reflect on oneself as a thinker and on one's mode of thought" (p. 65), and then promotes a mass solipsism that confines thinking to consciousness of the world we necessarily imagine. He describes the liberal as at once subhuman and superhuman and then, adopting a superhuman or nonhuman perspective, defines freedom as the unconditioned consciousness of an ultimately biological predestination. Barber's theory is fundamentally, if not intentionally, totalistic because he unknowingly imitates the aspects of liberalism he most persuasively attacks. This imitation will undoubtedly enhance the appeal of Strong Democracy to contemporary liberals.