Speaking Volumes: Participation and Democratic Theory

March 3, 1995

Elizabeth Meehan on Carole Pateman's Participation and Democratic Theory .

I discovered Carole Pateman's Participation and Democratic Theory (1970) at a critical stage in my life. As a teenager, I took it for granted that being political was part of human nature. It seemed self-evident people would want some control over their own lives, to contribute to collective life at however local a level, and to understand how politics worked. Enduring family memories include my mother's work for the village community centre and my father's role in helping David Steel to return to the Commons.

After school, I spent some years in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This I enjoyed for the privileged vantage point it gave me in finding out how institutions worked and feeling part of them. But I had never intended to miss the intellectual challenges of higher education. At first, it did not occur to me that one could study as a discipline all the things that I thought were just part of life. When I did discover I could read for a degree in politics, I also found out that many great thinkers of the 20th century had a completely different view of politics and human nature from my own. Some thought voters were irrational or ignorant; others that voters knew about their own interests but were unable to balance private wants against the public good. Responsibility for politics should be confined to a skilled political class and an apathetic electorate could be taken as an indication of a successful democracy.

This revisionist conclusion I found unbearably bleak. So it was with relief that I read Carole Pateman's short but devastating critique of revisionism. This is not to say that I found no fault with her sometimes over-sweeping rejections of particular thinkers. But her central message remains faultless: in denying the Aristotelian view that people are naturally political and the long-standing idea that participation can foster more widespread civic virtues, the revisionists had turned democratic theory on its head. Their so-called democracy was in fact its opposite - elite rule.

Since reading that book 20 years ago, my work has caused me to consider another twist to the problems of participation and democratic theory. On the one hand, I have found numerous vindications of the view that many, though not all, ordinary people are potentially political and that they learn to participate by being allowed to do so. On the other hand, the once-rescued theories have been undermined by feminist critiques - most persuasively, perhaps, by Carole Pateman herself. The idea that the conceptual building blocks of classical democracy rest on foundations where citizens are male by definition and civic virtue is necessarily manly virtue implies that politics cannot be modernised by "adding women in".

This seems to entail the dismantling of the whole architecture of democractic theory and practice; a conclusion as bleak to me as that of the revisionists. I would like to think we can adapt meanings to different circumstances so that something of that which has animated participatory democrats for centuries can continue to inspire us all.

Elizabeth Meehan is Jean Monnet professor of politics, The Queen's University of Belfast.

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