Archon Fung: “Deliberation Before the Revolution”

My friend and colleague Archon Fung has published an article entitled ?Deliberation Before the Revolution: Toward an Ethics of Deliberative Democracy in an Unjust World? (Political Theory, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring 2005: pdf).

“Deliberative democracy” is an ideal: people are supposed to exchange ideas, values, and arguments freely, in a variety of formats and genres; and their discourse (alone) is supposed to determine the outcome. In real life, social inequality, bureaucracy, secrecy, force and threats of force, bargaining, prejudice, and many other non-deliberative factors influence outcomes. How should someone who is committed to the ideal of deliberative democracy behave in an imperfect world?

Fung rejects two options. The first is to act in a purely deliberative way despite injustice. He thinks it is naive to commit oneself to give reasons and arguments (and nothing but reasons and arguments) even when powerful people refuse to listen. Strikes, boycotts, lawsuits, voter-mobilization campaigns, nonviolent protests, and even occasionally violent uprisings may be necessary. At the same time, Fung believes it is a mistake to abandon deliberation altogether until the “revolution” comes–in other words, until there is enough political equality and until institutions are well enough designed that deliberation can prevail. If one waits for the “revolution” before becoming a deliberative democrat, then the imperfections of our current order can justify abandoning all pretense of deliberation and simply trying to amass power. That is a path to cynicism and corruption.

Fung favors a middle course. The realistic (yet idealistic) deliberative democrat should try to make the world more deliberative through effective political activism, but he or she should be ethically constrained by certain deliberative norms. Specifically, the activist should keep in mind the goal of making institutions more fair and more influenced by reasons. He or she should assume that others will deliberate in good faith until they show by their behavior that they will not. The activist should exhaust deliberative forms of politics (e.g., giving arguments, organizing open meetings) before resorting to non-deliberative tactics. And any non-deliberative responses should be strictly proportional to the situation. Just because my opponent has been somewhat deaf to my arguments or somewhat secretive and authoritarian, it doesn’t follow that I may abandon deliberative norms altogether and simply use force.


Fung’s article covers other ground and very usefully analyzes a case-study (the “living-wage” campaign at Harvard). I endorse his argument and will use it in my own work–specifically, as Rose Marie Nierras and I continue to interview activists from the developing world to learn their attitudes toward deliberation.

I would only differ from Fung in emphasis. I think there are very serious dangers to abandoning deliberative forms of politics, even in the face of injustice. Some activists say, “Social inequality is so bad that people don’t know, or cannot effectively express, their own interests. Therefore, there is no point in trying to organize deliberation or in heeding its results. Social change first; talk later.” I think this attitude (which is not Fung’s, certainly, but a common one) is arrogant, because the activist assumes that he or she knows what a just society would look like. He grants himself the right to manipulate others to get the social change he wants. Not only is this unethical, in my view, but it can be foolish (if the activist misconceives justice) and unsustainable. Mobilization campaigns that pit the disadvantaged against the strong may win tactical victories, but they tend to peter out. To achieve lasting social change, one typically needs partnerships, social trust, shared information and ideas, and some degree of consensus.

Thus, although I agree with Fung that we should steer a middle course between idealism and Realpolitik, I think we too often overlook the power of deliberation and the dangers of abandoning it.

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