Book Review: Die Konsultative

Patrizia Nanz and Claus Leggewie, Die Konsultative. Mehr Demokratie durch Bürgerbeteiligung (Berlin: Klaus Wagenbach, 2016). 108 pp., €9,90 (paperback), ISBN: 9783803127495.

Post-democracy, populism, crisis of representative democracy: the buzzwords that dominate much of the ongoing discussion on the state of democracy in Germany and beyond form the building blocks of Patrizia Nanz and Claus Leggewie’s diagnosis of the current malaise of representative institutions and the proposal for their renewal that follows from it. The authors manage, in the space of just under 100 pages of text, to present a concise and coherent plea for the institutionalization of a “consultative” dimension of representative democracy, not only as a rechanneling of the “anti-political passions” behind populism into participatory outlets but also as a means of incorporating the normative principle of inter-generational justice into the decision-making logic of representative democracy.
The account begins in Chapter 1 with what appears to be an all too familiar crisis diagnosis: increasing numbers of citizens across Western democracies have become disaffected with democracy; Crouch’s post-democracy thesis has proven correct to the extent that “the uncontrolled power of large businesses accountable only to their shareholders” has hollowed out the decision-making capacity of representative institutions. It is against this background, the authors argue, that populism manages to tap into people’s “growing anti-capitalist affect” and disaffection with the technocratic “passionlessness of this ‘executing’ politics.” Populism, then, is not only about the articulation of a people-elite antagonism—as a wide range of scholars of populism have pointed out—but also an emotional regime that brings “passion” back into politics. The authors highlight numerous pathological expressions of this phenomenon such as the “electronic populism” of conspiracy theories circulated in the “echo chambers” of social media or the “authoritarian democracy” of populists in power from Putin to Erdoğan to Orbán. The key premise here is that the drivers of populism can ultimately be rechanneled by institutional means: the “anti-political passions” can be “civilized” and the “de-politicization of party competition” counteracted by offering citizens the right outlets for confronting one another “in the political arena in a different way ‘with passion and judgment.”
In the sections that follow (Chapters 2–5), Nanz and Leggewie proceed to outline the contours of their consultative democracy. They identify a considerable potential for participatory mechanisms that give citizens a say on matters directly impacting their local communities and/or requiring long-term planning—examples from recent German experience being Stuttgart 21 and the energy transition. These cases and others, in their own ways, speak to the need for participatory channels that allow value conflicts to be brought into the open, competing conceptions of the good to be articulated, questions of cost (of infrastructural projects, energy sustainability, etc.) to be deliberated and decided equitably, and the interests of future generations (“generational justice”) to be incorporated into the decision-making calculi of the present. On the basis of their empirical diagnosis (continued from Chapter 1) and normative underpinnings, the authors (Chapter 4) propose a system of “future councils” situated at the municipal or city-district level with the task of identifying “important future problems” and presenting “solution proposals.” The authors specify a number of features conceived to make these councils workable: the 15–20 members of each future council are to be selected randomly in order to overcome selectivity barriers and allow for the representation of a diversity of opinions, generations, and other demographics; the councils, with fixed two-year terms, are to convene regularly and receive support from a team of professionally trained public administrators and moderators, all with a view to securing their institutional anchorage as the “fourth power” or “fourth estate” (vierte Gewalt) of representative democracy.
Nanz and Leggewie present a lucid vision of a possible institutional innovation within representative democracy that ties directly into their diagnosis of the current malaise of the democratic system. There remains a number of questions, however, related to both the practical workings of these councils and their place in the wider diagnosis. On one level, there is lingering skepticism in the deliberative democracy literature about the extent to which problems of social selectivity can be overcome by random selection and professional moderation: Merkel, for instance, identifies a “first selection barrier” in citizens’ differing extents of willingness to participate once chosen (especially due to unequal time resources) and a “second selection barrier” in participants’ unequal “argumentative resources” (due to differing levels of education).1 To what extent this could be compensated for by professionally trained moderators is likewise an open question (“who guards the guardians and who moderates the moderators?”).
A set of more fundamental questions concerns the extent to which the authors’ concrete institutional vision does justice to their underlying diagnosis of the malaise of representative democracy. One possible objection would be that the citizens’ councils should be tasked not only with brainstorming “future problems” and proposing solutions to them, but also with more substantive issues of (re-)distribution and spending, at least if one takes seriously the authors’ diagnosis of a hollowing out of democratic institutions by the “uncontrolled power of large businesses” (in line with Crouch) and the resulting “anti-capitalist affect” that fuels populism. If the underlying problem of representative democracies is the distorted relationship between capitalism and democracy, as has been widely pointed out,2 approaches to revitalizing democratic participation should then be aimed at strengthening economic decision-making instruments in particular. While this is admittedly easier said than done, Herzberg’s concept of Solidarkommune illustrates by example how participatory budgeting schemes in European cities, while falling short of the Porto Alegre paradigm in terms of redistributive scope, might nonetheless integrate dimensions of administrative modernization, social justice, and environmental sustainability, such as in the Seville model of municipal investments based on citizens’ proposals and distributed according to social and environmental criteria.3 (It is worth noting that the wide-ranging mosaic of participatory budgeting (Bürgerhaushalt) schemes in Germany falls well short of even this benchmark.)
In addition, it is highly questionable that the “anti-political passions” driving populism can be redirected and remedied by institutional channels alone, especially if the latter’s scope does not extend onto questions of (re-)distribution and spending that are a not unimportant dimension of conflict too often left unarticulated by “de-politiciz[ed] party competition.” What has too often been overlooked in discussions of “input legitimacy” is that the input of democratic political systems concerns not only institutional participatory instruments, but also the key question of the extent to which social antagonisms are articulated via the party system.4 Mouffe’s critique of the “post-politics” is particularly insightful in this regard: the underlying tension at the heart of democracy’s problems is not only that of capitalism and democracy, but also that of a “liberal” pursuit of universal consensus and the “democratic” articulation of conflict and difference.5 According to Mouffe, social-democratic parties’ abandonment of an adversarial politics under neo-liberalism and the blurring of left-right distinctions have given rise to a “post-political” condition in which right-wing populists articulate conflict in exclusionary terms in the absence of larger competing projects of the left and right. Mouffe’s concept of agonistics as the normative response to this predicament is remarkably similar to Nanz and Leggewie’s vision of a civilized articulation of conflict within a shared framework of pluralist participation;6 yet what her analysis helps understand is that this project cannot be limited to institutional engineering via new participatory instruments alone, but must extend onto (the more difficult task of) a fundamental rethinking and renewal of party-political competition.

Seongcheol Kim, WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Humboldt University, Berlin


1 Wolfgang Merkel, Nur schöner Schein? Demokratische Innovationen in Theorie und Praxis, Frankfurt (Main), Otto-Brenner-Stiftung, 2015 (p. 61); Wolfgang Merkel, ‘The Limits of Democratic Innovations in Established Democracies,’ The Governance Report 2017, Berlin, Hertie School of Governance, 2017 (forthcoming).

2 Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Malden, MA, Polity, 2004; Wolfgang Streeck, Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus, Berlin, Suhrkamp, 2013; Wolfgang Merkel, ‘Is Capitalism Compatible with Democracy?’ Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2014, pp. 109–128.

3 Carsten Herzberg, Von der Bürger- zur Solidarkommune. Lokale Demokratie in Zeiten der Globalisierung, Hamburg, VSA, 2009; Yves Sintomer, Carsten Herzberg and Anja Röcke, Der Bürgerhaushalt in Europa – eine realistische Utopie? Zwischen partizipativer Demokratie, Verwaltungsmodernisierung und sozialer Gerechtigkeit, Wiesbaden, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2010.

4 Fritz Scharpf, Demokratietheorie zwischen Utopie und Anpassung, Konstanz, Scriptor, 1975.

5 Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London, Verso, 2000; Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, London, Routledge, 2005.

6 Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, London, Verso, 2013.

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