Anastasia Deligiaouri argues that we should be attentive to allowing incompatible concepts – such as 'illiberal democracy' – to dilute democracy’s essence. Rather, we must unravel and expunge threats that may lurk in democracies. In this way, we will ensure this pluralism does not serve or fulfil undemocratic desires
What do we mean by the term democracy? There are legions of adjectives to describe democracy and democratic forms of governance. But are they all compatible with some quintessence of ‘democracy’?
Jean-Paul Gagnon catalogues over 4,000 descriptions of democracy in his huge effort to unravel democracy's ontologies and ‘total texture’. Adjectives describing democracy refer to its many different aspects and manifestations – and even criticisms of it.
Democracy is a live project; it is never concluded. Different ideologies have invested in different aspects of democracy and have signified the term democracy in their own way. We commonly mark out these significations with adjectives. Thus, we have the dominant form of liberal democracy, social democracy, electoral democracy, and so on.
What I argue with reference to the above draws from two approaches that depart from different theoretical paradigms. The first is Laclau and Mouffe's discourse theory, developed in their seminal work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. The second is the pragmatist approach Roberto Frega adopts in his book Pragmatism and the Wide View of Democracy.
Laclau and Mouffe demonstrate that we cannot understand discourse – and hence discourse of democracy – merely as a linguistic artefact. Rather, we must evaluate it and analyse it as a totality at the level of ontology, encompassing discursive and non-discursive elements. Frega’s approach speaks for the inscription of democracy in the social terrain where democracy is examined in its social practice(s), not solely as an ensemble of principles.
The adjectives 'liberal' or 'social' are not simply descriptions for democracy. They function as nodal points and constitute a signifying centre around which the discourse of democracy acquires a specific meaning
According to Laclau and Mouffe, discourse is a ‘partial fixation of meaning’. Articulation in a specific discourse turns elements (floating signifiers) into moments (signifiers with specific meaning). This closure of meaning is never definite. The adjectives 'liberal' or 'social' are not simply descriptions for democracy. They function as nodal points and constitute a signifying centre around which the discourse of democracy acquires a specific meaning.
Democracy constitutes a discourse which defines – and it is defined at the same time – by its constitutive moments. To make this clearer, equality is signified in a different way in social democracy compared to liberal democracy. The semantic chains, the social terrains, that construct them are different.
It is obvious, therefore, that different discourses speak to democracy. But are all of them acceptable in the sense that they do not distort or negate democracy's quintessence?
The notion of materiality of discourse for Laclau and Mouffe means that economy, social life and institutions are also part of the discourse of democracy. And here is where the argument can be related to Frega’s pragmatist view of democracy. As Frega underlines, ‘democracy refers to the different layers of social ontology’.
No evaluation of democracy can happen in vitro in a non-contextual, non-social framework. To decide whether a regime is ‘democratic’ we need to inscribe democracy to its social context. In other words, to classify a regime as truly democratic or not, it is not sufficient to ensure that free elections are taking place or whether the Constitution has all the relevant provisions for democratic principles. Certainly, we acknowledge the importance of legal texts in defining and safeguarding democratic principles, especially at Constitutional level.
However, we also need to establish whether democracy as a discourse is present as an ethos in a society. Is democracy an overarching, guiding principle in social life, in how a society is organised? How truly democratic is a regime that meets democratic preconditions in terms of institutions, but which has not really embedded democratic norms into its social life, or has done so inadequately?
How truly democratic is a society when, for example, there is a restrictive paywall for higher education and only wealthy citizens can access knowledge; when there is insufficient childcare provision and, inevitably, parents' right to work is limited; and when we hear citizens’ voices only during elections, and participatory mechanisms are nearly absent from public life?
How truly democratic is a regime that meets democratic preconditions in terms of institutions, but which has not really embedded democratic norms into its social life?
For a genuine democracy to exist, a democratic ethos should be present in all social domains; a democratic ethos that respects basic principles like freedom, equality, and human rights, and abides by the rule of law. Democracy is always an ongoing project, but it should be moving in a specific direction: towards fulfilling democratic principles.
Democracy is a discourse in action and a time-relevant project. Adversarial discourses will always threaten its semantic chains. We must assess democracy in relation to how it is implemented and embedded in social structures and in specific times and contexts.
Diversity, pluralism and differentiation in democratic discourses pertain to the nature of democracy itself. But the way we construct and enact this discourse is crucial in assessing whether we can identify a regime as democratic or not.
Democracy is an ongoing project, but it should be moving in a specific direction: towards fulfilling democratic principles
We sometimes confront oxymoronic terms like ‘illiberal democracy’. This term describes a ‘democracy’ that is limited only to a typical electoral procedure but whose regime, on the other hand, restricts citizens' civil liberties and does not respect constitutional provisions. But can we really have democracy if it is 'illiberal' and does not respect citizens' freedom and rights? In my opinion, the term 'illiberal' is not really compatible with real democracy.
The term ‘illiberal democracy' is self-negating. The adjective negates the noun and the coexistence of the two words in one phrase is problematic. The only way we can understand 'illiberal democracy' as a term is as judgmental of a kind of democracy that deviates from democracy's core meaning and principles.
The plurality in democracy's descriptions should not disorientate us from democracy's quintessence. We must not allow regimes to manipulate this conceptual flexibility, pretending to be democratic, yet lacking democratic principles.