A Critical Assessment of ‘Between deliberative and participatory democracy: a contribution on Habermas’
‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Karl Marx, 1845, ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’
The object of this paper is one particular application of Habermas’ social theory – the effort to provide instruments for the enhancement of democratic practices made by Denise Vitale in her article “Between Deliberative and Participatory Democracy: a contribution on Habermas” (2006). Bearing in mind the importance of the conjunction of theory and practice for Critical Theory, the purpose here is to assess, through a critical analysis of this article, the way Vitale has applied Habermas’ democratic theory to operative democratic processes. Therefore, the importance of applying theory to practice will be explained, and a brief exposition of Habermas’ project and core concepts will be carried out, followed by an assessment of Vitale’s application of Deliberative Democracy in the final section.
In her article, Vitale detects significant problems in Habermas’ theory of communicative action: the difficulty in devising concrete institutional alternatives to promote democratic processes, and his lack of concern with social and economic justice. Vitale then finds the answer to these questions in participatory theories which, as we shall see, cannot account for modern society’s complexities. Nevertheless, because of the educative function of participatory democracy, its potential to restore citizenship and the assumption of social and economic justice as preconditions to substantive democracy, such theories would indeed be important tools for a real enhancement of democratic practice. Participatory and Deliberative theories would then be considered complementary to Vitale.
However, after providing an accurate analysis, Vitale’s attempt to conciliate Participatory and Deliberative theories of democracy meets a significant obstacle. For Habermas, as will be shown, communication is the universal feature of humanity, and therefore the essential condition for democracy. This presupposition implies a prioritisation of communicative rights over others, such as economic and social ones. When asserting the primacy of the ‘Ideal Speech Situation’, Habermas rejects all claims fixed before open discussion and debate, which means that no defense of material justice can be made a priori. Therefore, Vitale’s assertion of the need to institutionalize economic and social rights to deepen democracy clearly conflicts with the Habermasian presupposition of undistorted communication as the ideal to be pursued. Another result of this analysis, derived from this first conclusion, points to the difficulty of using Habermas’ theory to address concrete social problems, because the rejection of any predetermined truth stands in the way of the pragmatic design of alternative institutions capable of responding to the inequalities and injustices of contemporary society. It could be suggested, therefore, that Habermas is far from fulfilling the practical intent of critical theory.