🦋 Democracy’s ‘total texture’ requires mapping its enclosure and opening

Nick Vlahos argues that to fully animate the data mountain that Jean-Paul Gagnon has amassed about the plurality and interrelation of democratic adjectives and forms, we must capture the way in which these variegated types of democracy enclose and open how the public can collectively govern

Democracy as enclosure and opening

This Science of Democracy series started with an initial intervention by Jean-Paul Gagnon. He aims to widen our horizons, gathering thousands of adjectives to explore and demonstrate the multiple meanings and forms of democracy. The series now nears its hundredth entry. It has gone deep into not only how we might examine the plural definitions and applications of democracy around the globe and across time, but also into appreciating different methodological ways to study this data mountain.

As others have noted in this series, there are reasons for both qualitative and quantitative, i.e. bottom-up and inductive, as well as deductive approaches to examine different dimensions and core meanings of democracy. This connects with calls for practitioner interpretations of democratic meaning and practice.

The initial lexical approach gathered the names of democracy as they have been described. But we might also need to draw from a realist interpretation of the material foundations in which these democratic practices exist. Thus, we may discover not only multiple forms by which we examine democracy, but also an opportunity to integrate them. But how?

The series has helped us to expand our horizons about what democracy means and how to examine it. I suggest, however, that it has yet to fully appreciate how democracy occurs across spaces, places, and time. If there is a total texture of democracy, it’s a complicated one. It is also one that entails both enclosures and openings for publics and counterpublics to govern and assemble themselves.

A historical and spatial approach to democracy

Despite pointing to potential histories, the series hasn’t really developed a historical approach to the ways democracy embeds complex social relationships within its fractal unfolding.

These relationships manifest in informal as well as formal ways, and they almost always (if not always) involve contradiction. History as a methodology requires going deep into these contradictions. Some have even pointed out that we should read history forward, not backward.

Each form of democracy contains within it complex social relationships in both the past and present, and each defines who has access to democracy

Here, for Dennis Pilon, we might 'think of democracy as a relationship amongst people for their own collective self-governance. But the effort to introduce and sustain that relationship has always been contested by those who would prefer things to be organised in a different way (e.g., by status or wealth), as well as by the broader social relations of inequality – e.g., class, race, gender, etc. – that exist in any given locale.'

A historical approach to uncovering democracy’s many meanings and practices entails pinpointing how political, social and economic contests lead to the creation, controlling, and dismantling of democratic repertoires that tend to only benefit some people.

This occurs because such contests define how spaces and places bring, remove, or prevent people from being together. If this sounds paradoxical, that’s because democracy is only ever a partial project evolving and enduring amidst historical cleavages.

Democracy as enclosure

There is a tendency to romanticise democracy as the rule of the people. But the ‘rule’ is never complete, nor is it ever fully inclusive of ‘the people’. Here, I build on Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago’s fascinating book Against the Commons, in which, through a lens of urban planning, he outlines a theory of ‘parliamentary enclosure’.

From this perspective, democracy in the capitalist west involves active policies to redefine how publics commonly assemble. For instance, active state projects and policies have sought to decollectivise public spaces in rural and urban areas.

We can take this further, to recognise that parliament itself was an enclosed space. It prevented certain publics from entering and participating in governance, through the denial of suffrage, property qualifications, plural voting, etc.

Parliamentary democracy has historically functioned as a form of enclosure, limiting public spaces and capacities and, even with universal suffrage, it continues to do so

But the point is that an interpretation of democracy that leans heavily on parliamentary or representative democracy is an inverted self-governance. It is a form of indirect self-rule that has always entailed forms of enclosure that delimit public spaces and capacities.

Even with the expansion of universal suffrage, the terrain of representative processes continues to be manipulated. These manipulations hinder marginalised publics from participating equally in elections or creating policies that produce and maintain generational social inequality.

Democracy as opening

If democratic enclosure is omnipresent within the very foundations of parliamentary democracy, then it also entails openings. The contests over enclosures that occur within institutions and the public sphere leads to alternative forms of assembly and association, the taking over of enclosed spaces and their reappropriation for common use.

Participatory forms of democratic determination involve mass mobilisations within, and the active shaping of, public squares. But they also include more organised forms of collective capacity-building in participatory institutions at the local level, ranging from community land trusts to cooperative workplaces and community wealth building.

To understand the data mountain as a collection of practices, rather than words alone, we must examine the contests, enclosures, and openings contained within each description of democracy

These practices seek to reanimate the commons and address inequality. The democratisation of democracy is seeing a massive disassociation with elite-driven government. This creates new opportunities for more expansive and, prospectively, inclusive types of equitable self-governance. That said, even participatory spaces are actively contested and require testing to determine how well they decommodify the public.

Expanding the data mountain of democracy to be something more of a complete picture of practices, not just words – a total texture – will invariably require understanding democracy across history and local, regional, national, and global spaces and places. The data mountain contains 3,500+ descriptions of democracy. How many contests, enclosing and opening variegated spaces for (de)collective purposes, are contained within?

No.98 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Nick Vlahos
Nick Vlahos
Deputy Director, Center for Democracy Innovation, National Civic League

Nick works to improve official public meetings, mapping the American healthy democracy ecosystem, researching local civic leadership, and bringing together parliamentarians for an exchange on global innovations in democracy.

He is passionate about citizen empowerment and collaborative public service provision in contexts of inequality.

He resides in Toronto and holds a PhD in political science from York University.

He tweets @cnvlahos

The Political Economy of Devolution in Britain from the Postwar Era to Brexit by Nick Vlahos

The Political Economy of Devolution in Britain from the Postwar Era to Brexit
Springer, 2020

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