Conference Website

Who is the Democratic Agent?

Ghent University – 1st and 2nd March 2013

First International Workshop of the
Making Democracy Network ‘Who is the Democratic Agent’ Project

Organised by the Making Democracy Network & Hosted by the Center for Ethics and Value Inquiry - CEVI

The Making Democracy Network emerged organically from three sets of conditions. The first, most conceptual, was a growing sense of concern that much of the literature and discourse about democracy tended to make assumptions – wither obscured or pre-given – about democratic agents in the diagnostic critiques of system, structure and culture, or narrate the activities of groups and movements as if they were intrinsically democratic in themselves. There appeared to be space to ask questions as to who the democratic agent (or subject) was, how we conceived and characterised this agent, what strategic and political imperatives they worked within or under, and how they played a part in the complex task of making democracy and sustaining and safeguarding democracy through their colonisation of systems and structures and their constituting of cultures (without falling into the lap of the democracy building agenda of the right!). These questions should be balanced with concerns about systems, structures, context and conjunctures and culture and political discourse, but there was a feeling that perhaps a dialectical understanding of these features of making democracy often left the agent short on focus.

This concern was reflected in the call for papers:

There are voluminous libraries of texts that describe both how ‘democracies’ do work, and how different thinkers argue they should work. Within this literature, there is a wide range of: analysed or proposed systems and structures; organisational, institutional, group and network sketches and models; cultural, political, ideological and political economy approaches; and philosophical and empirical analyses.

One thing much of this literature addresses with a minor rather than a major key is the character and description of the political agent for whom democracies are supposed to operate, who colonise these structures, systems and models, who act for sectional or wider political interests and who thereby claim rights and take on responsibilities to democratic structures and those who subscribe to them. Who are these democratic agents? Autonomous people engaged in political contracts? Individuals who operate with self interest within political markets? Subjects shaped or moulded by the ideological, cultural and political apparatus of dominant forces or structures of the state itself? Subjects whose sense of self and engagement with the other is subject to a complex amalgam of psychoanalytic, linguistic and symbolic relationships and domains?; Agents who seeks to live ethical in ethical communities through their ideas and practices?:  Complex agents within autopoietic systems or agents within complex systems with disparate and multiple drivers and characteristics?

It is not that the democratic agent is ignored. Clearly it is possible to see the democratic agent in a wealth of theoretical and political texts and campaigns. This project, however, wants to bring the democratic subject to the fore, and ask: What characteristics, virtues, capacities, experiences, moral and political pedagogy and knowledge are necessary to be a democratic agent?; How does the democratic agent relate to political elites, political structures, bureaucrats, professions (particularly focused around the state) and intellectuals, and whether such distinctions can sustain within democratic societies?; What particular experiences and changes politicise (or depoliticise) the democratic agent and what cases can we draw from to understand them?; What are the obligations, responsibilities and duties that a democratic agent should have, and what rights should they enjoy?; Does taking the democratic agent seriously change our notion of politics altogether?

This project within the ‘Making Democracy’ network seeks to focus on the democratic agent as they are now, as they might become, as they change through politicisation (or depoliticisation), how they are or should be conceived and understood, and how they can make democracies in which they can exercise contingency but understand constraint, be free and yet accept the precepts of democratic community. The sorts of questions and areas posed above are a short and partial reflection of what might be asked about the democratic agent.

For the first international seminar, the focus for papers will be a simple yet elusive question: Who is the democratic agent? Suggested focuses are:

  • What characteristics, virtues and capabilities do or should the democratic agent have?
  • How do we ‘make’ the democratic agent, if we can make them at all, or how can they make themselves?
  • What moral or political pedagogy best promotes democracy and democratic agents participation in it?
  • What is the role of the intellectual in enabling democratic agents?
  • Do we need to rethink or dissemble current democratic systems and their political structures and processes to enable democratic agents?
  • What experiences best inform the democratic agent?
  • What are the obligations, responsibilities, duties and rights best describe a democratic agent?

These questions should not preclude submissions that take different questions in their approach to the seminar theme. We welcome discussion and position papers that speculate, question and think as much as (if not more than) polished pieces; and we hope to attract a group of scholars who will want to develop something more substantial from this small starting-point, in collaborative endeavor.

Paul Reynolds, Edge Hill University -

The conference is organised by the Making Democracy Network and hosted by the Center for Ethics & Value Inquiry (CEVI), Ghent University, in collaboration with the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics (CAPPE, University of Brighton).