Is pluralism faithful to the idea of democracy?
Other features of the pluralist doctrine, apart from the one already discussed – that of competing interest groups, also closely relate to what many would without hesitation call features of democracy: citizenship rights, including one-person-one-vote, freedom of expression, freedom of organisation; a system of checks and balances between the legislature, executive, judiciary and administrative bureaucracy; competitive electoral system with (at least) two parties (Held, 1996, p. 217).
So, can pluralism fly the flag of the most relevant, accurate and sensible path to running a modern, industrial society? Do Dahl’s ideas and observations in the 1950s and 1960s still hold true today? Do we live in a pluralist society (in the West)? The answers to these questions can help us tackle the question of pluralism’s faithfulness to democracy. Keeping in mind the classic pluralist theory and our question I will now consider some criticisms of the theory, which ultimately detract from the notion that pluralism is faithful to democracy.
From the late 1960s through to the present there have been a number of economic, social and political crises that have inevitably led to the questioning of classic pluralist thought (Dunleavy & O’Leary, 1987, p. 271-2). The major doubt of pluralist thought is its inability to deal with any change away from the world as it stood in the 1950s and 1960s. The ’empirical’ nature of pluralism, and its ‘realistic’ description of society, has made it difficult for pluralist’s features to be cast into shape with the changing mould of the political arena.
The features of pluralism stated above ‘cannot, in the end, shed light on, or explain, a world in which there may be systematic imbalances in the distribution of power, influence and resources’ (Held, 1996, p. 208). The critiques of pluralism can be described crudely, but usefully, in three broad brushstrokes. Firstly, it can be argued that pluralism fails to take into consideration questions about the structure of society, i. e. the great variance in wealth and political power wielded between the members of society. It assumes an equal opportunity to act politically regardless of your financial, social and political status.
Secondly, following from the inequality of influence discussed above, it is argued that power and influence will, in fact, reside with a powerful i?? lite, resembling in part Schumpeter’s ‘competitive elitism. ‘ The third main criticism is the Marxist one. The critique is one familiar to Marxist theory – the overarching structure of capitalism and its natural trait of existing solely to perpetuate its own ends, i. e. profit-seeking. This implies that we need not look any further to find why pluralism is not faithful to ‘real’ or ‘true’ democracy, in the socialist sense.
There is no point to attempt to address the inequalities, as described above, within capitalism. These three points are summed up by Hirst: They [critics] see pluralism as, at best, a grotesque misdescription of the realities of power in the Western capitalist system. Others, less charitable, see it as an account so at variance with the facts that it must be an ideological apologia. The pluralists see power as relatively widely diffused in Western industrial countries in which representative democracy exists, and in a few other cases such as India.
But the reality, it is claimed, is domination by a capitalist ruling class or a military-industrial power i?? lite (Hirst, 1987, p. 154). These critiques of pluralism have not been left without response by pluralists. A ‘neo-pluralist’ form can be seen to have developed to deal with criticisms. Dahl, the forefather of classical pluralism, is, yet again, in the vanguard of this new form. Held describes Dahl’s ‘stark contrast to A Preface to Democratic Theory’ and states Dahl’s acceptance and acknowledgement of the shortcomings of classic pluralism in his A Preface to Economic Democracy (Held, 1996, p.214).
Indeed, these questions that neo-pluralists are now faced with have brought about a rethinking and revisiting of their thesis. Within pluralism, many of the central questions about the principles, key features and general conditions of democracy are now more open to debate than ever before (Held, 1996, p. 218). In conclusion, it must be stressed, as stated above, that pluralism has been ‘faithful’, ‘partly faithful’ and ‘unfaithful’ to democracy depending on the opinion of the appraiser in question. Its faithfulness also depends on your conception of democracy itself.
If you are comfortable with the adaptation of democracy to fit with modern societies then you could well fall into the ‘partly faithful’ camp. If you are certain that democracy, in its liberal and representative sense, is the sole and best way of controlling society then you could well fall into the ‘faithful’ camp. And, if you are sure that pluralist versions of democracy are inimical to a true sense of the word then you could well fall into the ‘unfaithful’ camp. In my own opinion it appears extremely important to discuss pluralism contextually, historically and without reversion to simply ‘describing’ society.
If pluralism is taken to be faithful to democracy, in that it is the best way of running society, then it will always be an easy target for criticism. This is because of the wider, more complex nature of modern, capitalist societies outside of the purely decision-making, political sphere. The type of society necessary for pluralism to be in its prime, could easily be argued to be impossible to exist. In the words of Mr Pluralism himself, encapsulating the fundamental reason for championing pluralism, and the fundamental problem with it: PLURALIST: …
If the notion of citizen virtue and common good are to be relevant to the modern world, we have to situate them in the context of polyarchy and the pluralism that accompanies it. Wouldn’t you agree, Traditionalist?
TRADITIONALIST: Within limits. I might draw the conclusion that polyarchy and pluralism are inherently inferior to the polis, and we should therefore do what we can to restore the polis. You give me all the more reason to prefer the past and reject the present as the model for the future (Dahl. 1989, p. 289). Bibliography Dahl, Robert A. (1956) A Preface to Democratic Theory.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Dahl, Robert A. (1989) Democracy and its Critics. New Haven: Yale University Press. Dunleavy, Patrick & O’Leary, Brendan. (1987) Theories of the State. London: Macmillan. Hague, Rod ; Harrop, Martin. (2001) Comparative Government and Politics. London: Palgrave. Held, David. (1996) Models of Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press. Hirst, Paul Q. (1987) ‘Retrieving Pluralism’ in Outhwaite, W ; Mulkay, M (eds. ) Social Theory and Social Criticism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Lively, Jack. (1975) Democracy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.