Prolegomena to Democratic Inquiry: On The Priority of Injustice

Last time I was reflecting on the central themes in The Priority of Injustice, I was discussing the contrast between action-oriented social theories and subject-centric interpretations of cultural and political theory and ‘Continental philosophy’. The final part of the book seeks to demonstrate the difference that cleaving more closely to the former strand of thought makes to a geographical programme of political inquiry. The subject-centric view of political life underwrites a form of spatial analysis focussed on closures and exclusions and the positioning of subjects in fields of meaning and affective force. The alternative perspective that I develop in Part 3 of the book revolves around the reconstruction of the principle of all affected interests in recent critical theories of democracy. And, related to this, it also involves a reorientation of a concern with democratic justice around the value of non-domination as distinct from fairness (i.e. it’s not straightforwardly liberal, although it does presume that one should take liberalism more seriously than has become the norm in radical theories of democracy).

In Part 3, this argument unfolds rather slowly, step-by-step, Chapter-by-Chapter, first with a discussion of the all affected interests idea (Chapter 6), then running this theme into a discussion of the centrality of the harm of domination in critical theory (Chapter 7), and then elaborating on how this in turn leads to a shared focus on ‘the priority of injustice’ across strands of critical theory and post-analytical political philosophy (Chapter 8).

The principle of all-affected interests – that anyone affected by a decision should have some say in its formulation – is a fairly intuitive aspect of the idea of democracy. Initially, it combines two aspects – one of being affected, but also of being able to exert agency, of being able to affect outcomes in some way. It is often discussed as a prescriptive norm of one sort or another; more interestingly, in the work of Ian Shapiro for example, it is used to develop an account of democratic inclusion that privileges relations of power over those of membership (Nancy Fraser also has a moment in which she uses it in this sense, although it is subsequently revised). The only problem with that view is that it lends itself to a view of affectedness as something that can be objectively determined by some form of causal analysis (which is why it might be very attractive to geographers, and is also why Fraser ends up moving away from it, on the grounds that it is an idea that supports ‘monological’ forms of reasoning). I suggest in Chapter 6, Claims of the Affected, that one can actually divide the first sense – of being affected – into two, a sense of having an interest in an issue in a kind of objective way, and a sense of taking an interest in an issue, in a sort of subjective way. It’s a distinction that is sometimes made in a prescriptive way (in Shapiro, I think, and also in Robert Goodin’s work on this theme), but sometimes embraced as opening up the idea of affectedness in more fun directions (by Bruno Latour, for example, but Robert Dahl got there first). So, I end up with a threefold heuristic distinguishing between being affected, being moved, and having agency – and then, I suggest that one can use this threefold account of affectedness to better appreciate the importance of Habermas’s translation of the principle of all affectedness into the terms of a theory of communicative action, and how various critics of Habermas further extend this translation in more explicitly contestatory and less rationalistically rationalist visions of democratic politics.

Oh, and all of this is framed by an argument against the presumptive “methodological globalism” of critical theories of democracy (i.e. their suspicion of local, emplaced, bounded, nationalised forms of political life). I close this chapter by suggesting that the threefold version of affectedness maps roughly onto three questions one can ask about the spatial registers of political action – questions about how spatial relations generate issues, serve as mediums for their apprehension as issues, and as potential vectors for effective agency, or not as the case may be (that’s an argument that I have made elsewhere at greater length than I do in this book – here and here, for example).

With what I am sure is a seamless segue, the argument then moves onto Chapter 7, Subjects of Domination, which works back over the theme of all affectedness to tease out the centrality of the harm of domination to recent critical theories of democracy – the discussion centres in particular on Iris Marion Young, my favourite thinker ever, as well as Nancy Fraser, and with a nod to Philip Pettit (not quite perhaps of this same tradition, but an important reference point for it). One thing to underscore about the concern with centring discussions of democratic justice on the issue of domination – of the arbitrary subjection to the will of others – is that it marks a decisive difference separating critical theories of democracy from liberal theories of democracy. Now, I’m quite fond of liberalism, of certain sorts, but of course in TheoryLand it’s a knock-down target – too individualistic, too rationalistic, too universalizing, not radical enough, and so on and so on. In terms of the discussion in this chapter of my book, since it is moving towards an elaboration of the theme of injustice, the pertinent point about egalitarian liberal theories of justice is that they prioritize the value of fairness, in terms of what one is due, of just deserts, fair shares. That’s not a principle to be lightly dismissed, of course. But from the critical theory perspective, the emphasis is not on fairness but upon matters of arbitrary rule – of how one is treated (the distinction is important, for example, for appreciating why Habermas isn’t properly characterised when labelled as a liberal; not that there’s any shame in being one of those, of course). And this matters because it recasts how geography enters into the critical theory imagination of democracy – here, James Bohman’s work is exemplary, because he elaborates on a sense of distanciated and distributed spatial relations as mediums through which people are exposed to to subjection to arbitrary rule by others, or, they are made vulnerable to domination.

Somewhere in all of that, I think I am trying to gesture at a difference between two ways of thinking about “why relationality matters politically”. Thinking of the strung-out relational constitution of social life is not interesting, politically, because it’s a way of telling moral stories about the constitution of identities through disavowal or by revealing the fact of being bound into other people’s actions without knowing it. It is interesting for a much more serious reason, but also perhaps a less all-encompassing one, related to questions of agency and consent and domination (again, Young is the best guide here).

Having got this far – having re-cast the idea of all affectedness and then related it to the value of non-domination, the story moves on to Chapter 8, The Sense of Injustice, in which the theme of the priority of injustice is explicitly elaborated. This theme kind of crept up on me as I was writing the book in 2015. And I’m still trying to work out quite what it involves. The idea as I present it in this Chapter has various sources, perhaps most importantly Judith Shklar’s book The Faces of Injustice, but also Elizabeth Wolgast, and some similar looking ideas in Hannah Pitkin and Cora Diamond, as well as a more systematic consideration by Thomas Simon in Democracy and Social Injustice. There is something vaguely ordinary linking this strand of reflection on the theme. I link this strand of thought to another strand, coming out of critical theory, especially Axel Honneth – and through back him to Barrington Moore, Jr. – and also Rainer Forst. And then, thirdly, a strand of thought which is basically Amartya Sen, most explicitly in his The Idea of Justice. Finally, Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, another book that starts off from Shklar’s provocation, and which is a really interesting combination of analytical political philosophy and strands of poststructuralist feminist theory.

That may or may not seem like a random collection of thinkers, but I think it is actually quite tightly drawn together around a shared prioritization of the sense of injustice as the dynamic of democratization. The argument for the priority of injustice, or at least my grasp of it, goes something like this:

  • First, determinations of injustice can and are made independently of a prior theory of justice (or, to put it another way, you don’t need a universal theory of justice to make judgments about the injustice of a situation).
  • Second, this follows from the fact that injustice has its own texture, a phenomenology of its own (though not a singular one, for sure) – it is not simply a function of the absence of justice or the failure of some party to act justly. Injustice is better understood on the analogy of health and disease (a thought that first came to me at the suggestion of Jouni Häkli on one of the early occasions when I tried to talk about all of this) – illness is not an absence of health, it is a positive condition – diseases have causes and conditions all of their own. One has a cold, or catches the flu.
  • Thirdly, injustice is felt (rather than rationally apprehended by reference to principles) – there are different versions of this argument, in Shklar, Moore, Honneth and others. One implication is that negative feelings – anger, revenge – might be important animating passions of struggles against injustice. But this also has implications for how one imagines the possibility of developing a democratic methodology of the sort implied by Shklar’s argument that the expressions by victims of injustice should be accorded a privilege of some sort (I try to outline some of those implications in the ‘supplementary’ paper on Geography and the priority of injustice).

There’s a lot more to say about this whole theme – it’s a long chapter! One thing that follows from it is that we would do well to not think that justice is an ideal, without thinking the smart thing that follows from that observation is that it is a mere illusion. Justice is done as a response or remedy to some harm or other – it is not a pure phenomenon poorly realised, it is a mark both of an imperfect world and of the possibility of betterment. Which is a thought that might route us back to the theme of the ‘ethnographic emergence’ of the meaning of normative values that was discussed earlier in the book – in given contexts, the meanings of justice, for example, will bear the historical traces of specific harms and compromises, and it might be worth exploring the consequences of that fact.

Another issue that arises from all this is the proposition that injustice is a public phenomenon, related to an argument about the double sense in which claims-making is made central to the recognition and redress of injustices: claims as assertions made against a certain state of affairs and addressed to others, and assertions as acts which need to be processed in some sense or other. That’s a theme I need to develop further and the full implications of which require deeper analysis – not least, I think because it might be key to avoiding what I can see might well be a potential trap for any injustice-centred account of political life, an issue identified in Samuel Moyn’s genealogy of the rise of the politics of human rights since the 1970s. One of the Moyn’s suggestions is that the rise of human rights as an alternative global activist imagination and associated ascendancy ideals of human dignity embedded in human rights campaigning, in law, and in political philosophy involves a redefinition of the relations between morality and politics “around the worst than can transpire in history, rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle” (see Moyn, S. 2014. Human Rights and the Uses of History. London, Verso, p. 33). One challenge of developing an injustice framework is, then, to work through how to avoid this problem of settling, as it were, for trying to avoid the worst rather than striving towards doing things better. But that might be for another book.

Anyway, so that is the narrative sequence of Part 3 of The Priority of Injustice, and it makes perfect sense in my head – reconstructing the theoretical significance of the theme of affectedness in democratic theory (Chapter 6), opening this out to a consideration of the specific form of harm, domination, made central in critical theories of democracy (Chapter 7), and then drawing these two strands together by teasing out the shared emphasis on the priority of injustice in what might appear to be disparate traditions of political thought (Chapter 8).

Now the book is finished, I have to decide what to do next with this whole argument.

 

 

 

 

 

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Arguing With Theory: On The Priority of Injustice

It’s a funny experience, publishing a book – something that one has lived and worked with for perhaps years and invested all sorts of energies into finally comes out, and there is an odd sense of anti-climax (it’s a lot like finishing a PhD). But it’s also odd to actually read one’s own book in proper book form, bound and beautiful, even though The Priority of Injustice is pretty much the only thing I have been reading since at least the summer of 2015. There is a kind of terror involved (what does it read like?), but also a nice experience of affirmation, as you notice that there is maybe something coherent running through the whole thing (although maybe you have to have been reading, writing and editing it for more than two years to actually notice this). So, I have now read my own book, again, cover to cover, and annotated it in detail (but only in pencil…).  At some point in the future, certainly next Spring, I will have to talk about the arguments in the book, so I am going to take the liberty of writing a few short posts over the next little while in which I am going to say out loud, to myself at least, what some of the main themes of the book are, as a kind of mnenonic practice.

The first of the themes which are central to the overall arc of the book which I want to remind myself of is that of ‘arguing with theory’.

The Priority of Injustice is a book about theory, in the sense that, as I have previously mentioned, was once used by Talcott Parsons – it treats ideas as an archive of documents that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. But I also try to move away from an idea of Theory as a kind of standing body of ideas that one is meant to display mastery over (some hope), and instead actually try out my hand at theorizing. I realise that that immediately sounds perhaps even more pompous than the idea of mastering other people’s ideas (if it is taken as developing a whole raft of new concepts all of one’s own), but it seems to me a more appropriate, and modest ambition. (There are a couple of things I have read since writing The Priority of Injustice that express very clearly the idea of theorizing I am working towards in the book, Richard Swedberg’s The Art of Social Theory and John Levi Martin’s Thinking Through Theory – I mention them here not least to underscore another aspect of the argument I am making in the book, which is that a social theory imagination involves a different, less theoreticist style of reasoning than the sorts shared by convergent traditions of political theory and cultural theory).

There are two related senses in which I think of what I am doing in this book as theorizing.

First, I outline an approach to reading for the “spatial grammar” of different traditions of political thought, which is meant to contrast to a taken-for-granted approach in critical spatial disciplines such as human geography or urban theory of correcting the bad ontological assumptions of traditions of thought found to be inadequately attuned to 40 years worth of thinking about relational spatiality (a habit that extends to a standard style of critique of the spatial ontologies of policy-makers or journalists or corporations or one’s fellow citizens). Reading for the spatial grammar of theories is directed by a principle of charity, to borrow an idea from Donald Davidson, that is, of trying to maximise understanding across what might appear to be incommensurable vocabularies. The notion of grammar, then, in this formulation is meant to direct analytical attention “to the actions being performed in the use of words and concepts”, so that when one comes across thinkers making use of spatial and temporal concepts then the primary concern should be to take seriously “what is really at stake in their expression”. This first sense of theorizing at work in the book is related to a broader argument, developed in the first two chapters, about thinking of the meaning of normative concepts like democracy not by reference to etymological derivation but with reference to their use in new situations.

This ordinary way of thinking about concepts is linked to the second sense of theorizing in the book. It’s an approach that I seek to apply more fully in the three chapters of Part 3 of the book, in which I argue that the geographical turn in deliberative theories of democracy associated with discussions of topics like cosmopolitanism, global justice, or transnationalism is best interpreted as an occasion for a repeated disaggregation of the component parts of key principles, such as freedom, or equality, or participation. The point of developing this argument is to cash-out the suggestion I make at the start of the book, that we should think of ‘theory’ as something that “helps to direct our curiosity to issues that deserve further attention”. It leads me to recommend a heuristic notion of critical theory, borrowing this time from Andrew Abbott, where the aim of theorizing is to develop concepts “that help to orient new pathways to findings things out” – again, the contrast is meant to be with approaches to theorizing that develop models of what counts as proper politics or ideal democracy against which emergent forms always come up short. In Part 2 of the book, I elaborate this heuristic approach to the interpretation of concepts in order to to distinguish between different accounts of the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’. In what has become the standard interpretation of this distinction, the simple observation that action has conditions is transformed into strong claims about the apparent paradox that necessarily contingent foundations will always be prone to immanent forces of disruption. I suggest that the real value of the politics/the political distinction lies in the rather more prosaic task of helping “to open up new ways of investigating the conditions of political action”. It’s this version of the distinction that I then develop further in the reconstruction of the all-affected interests idea in Part 3 of the book, which I present not as a prescriptive rule for determining the scope of democratic inclusion or the form of rule, but as a guide to the analysis of the geographies of claims-making.

It’s these two related ways of theorizing – I call them ordinary in places, heuristic in others, depending on the philosophical inflection in play at that moment – that I have in mind when I claim, towards the end of the book, that The Priority of Injustice is meant as “kind of prolegomena to democratic inquiry in a geographical sprit” – as I’ve said before, I think of this book as a kind of space-clearing exercise, as an attempt to clarify problems and issues which requite further investigation.

What do cities have to do with democracy?

Scan 130330022-6Following up on the earlier post about the IJURR symposium on the theme Where is Urban Politics? I thought I should plug my own paper in this collection. My piece is titled ‘What do cities have to do with democracy?’ (the answer is that ‘it depends’; you’ll have to read the paper to find out what exactly it depends on). I have been giving a version of this paper as my default seminar presentation for about 4 years now, so I’m not quite sure what I will talk about if and when I’m next invited anywhere, but I do hope that this extensive pre-release touring of the paper will boost sales.

This paper is actually the last in a cluster that I have written on themes such as political agency, urban problemsideas of contestation, and the idea of ‘all affected interests’. When I finished this one (a while ago now), I realised that I really needed to write a book linking these together, since an 8000 word (or so) article is not enough space to elaborate the full sweep of the argument that I have in my head which connects these all together. So that’s what I am doing now, this summer, writing a book about democratic theory, notions of injustice, and the geographical imagination needed to develop open-minded inquiry into these themes – it’s preliminary title is Locating Democracy, contracted with the University of Georgia Press, in their Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series. I’m saying this out loud and in public as a way of imposing some external discipline on myself, to help me along in the task of actually writing the book.

Anyway, anyway, in the meantime, here is the abstract from the IJURR paper:

“The relationship between urbanization and democratization remains under-theorized and under-researched. Radical urban theory has undergone a veritable normative turn, registered in debates about the right to the city, spatial justice and the just city, while critical conceptualizations of neoliberalism present ‘democracy’ as the preferred remedy for injustice. However, these lines of thought remain reluctant to venture too far down the path of political philosophy. The relationship between urban politics and the dynamics of democratization remains under-theorized as a result. It is argued that this relationship can be usefully understood by drawing on lessons from avowedly normative styles of political theorizing, specifically post-Habermasian strands of critical theory. Taking this tradition seriously helps one to notice that discussions of urbanization, democracy, injustice and rights in geography, urban studies and related fields invoke an implicit but unthematized democratic norm, that of all-affected interests. In contemporary critical theory, this norm is conceptualized as a worldly register of political demands. It is argued that the conceptual disaggregation of component values of democracy undertaken through the ‘spatial turn’ in recent critical theory reorients the analysis of the democratic potentials of urban politics around the investigation of the multiple forms of agency which urbanized processes perform in generating, recognizing and acting upon issues of shared concern.”

Radical Democracy

My previously advertised co-authored paper with Gary Bridge, Geographies of Radical Democracy, is now published for ‘real’, in print, in the latest issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers. We have been sent a whole load of off-prints of the article – a long time since I have received any of those, it’s quite quaint really. Let me know if you want one!

Here is the abstract, again:

“There is significant interest in democracy in contemporary human geography. Theoretically, this interest has been most strongly influenced by poststructuralist theories of radical democracy and associated ontologies of relational spatiality. These emphasize a priori understandings of the spaces of democratic politics, ones that focus on marginal spaces and the destabilization of established patterns. This article develops an alternative account of the spaces of democratic politics that seeks to move beyond the stylized contrast of poststructuralist agonism and liberal consensualism. This alternative draws into focus the spatial dimensions of philosophical pragmatism and the relevance of this tradition for thinking about the geographies of democracy. In particular, the geographical relevance of pragmatism lies in the distinctive inflection of the all-affected principle and of the rationalities of problem solving. Drawing on John Dewey’s work, a conceptualization of transactional space is developed to reconfigure understandings of the agonistics of participation as well as the experimental institutionalization of democratic will. The difference that a pragmatist approach makes to understandings of the geographies of democracy is explored in relation to transnational and urban politics.”

Geographies of radical democracy

For anyone interested in this sort of thing, I have a new paper, co-written with Gary Bridge, just published on-line in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, which addresses how best to theorise about the relationship between democracy and geography. It develops the idea of agonistic pragmatism, and the notion of transactional space, and explores how the idea of ‘all affected interests’ may, or may not, provide the grounds for rethinking this relationship. It’s an attempt to expand a little the range of reference points, in geography and related fields, for discussions of ‘radical democracy’. You can access a pre-publication draft of the paper here, and the abstract is below:

“There is significant interest in democracy in contemporary human geography. Theoretically, this interest has been most strongly influenced by poststructuralist theories of radical democracy and associated ontologies of relational spatiality. These emphasize a priori understandings of the spaces of democratic politics, ones that focus on marginal spaces and the destabilization of established patterns. This article develops an alternative account of the spaces of democratic politics that seeks to move beyond the stylized contrast of poststructuralist agonism and liberal consensualism. This alternative draws into focus the spatial dimensions of philosophical pragmatism and the relevance of this tradition for thinking about the geographies of democracy. In particular, the geographical relevance of pragmatism lies in the distinctive inflection of the all-affected principle and of the rationalities of problem solving. Drawing on John Dewey’s work, a conceptualization of transactional space is developed to reconfigure understandings of the agonistics of participation as well as the experimental institutionalization of democratic will. The difference that a pragmatist approach makes to understandings of the geographies of democracy is explored in relation to transnational and urban politics.”

Agonistic pragmatism

News from the Political Theory blog  of a new book on democracy and pragmatism by Jack Knight and James Johnson, The Priority of Democracy.  It puts an emphasis on pragmatism as a tradition that focusses on issues of institutional design and experimentalism, but above all, places this focus within an understanding of politics as ineluctably about conflict and disagreement.

I’m drawn to the argument of the book because it sort of confirms the line of argument that I have tried to articulate in a paper co-written with Gary Bridge at Bristol, on agonistic pragmatism and the geographies of radical democracy. It’s taken us about four years to write, and it’s just now been accepted by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, which is nice. Our piece develops the same themes of experimentalism and institutional design in order to displace a stylized contrast between post-structuralist agonism and consensual deliberation that shapes debates about democratic theory in spatial disciplines like geography and urban planning – and we try to spell out a distinctive approach to spatial questions that follows from this agonistic understanding of pragmatism, via a reconstruction of the principle of ‘all affected interests’ and the concept of transactional space. I’m not sure when our paper will actually be out in public, sometime in the next year hopefully, but in the meantime, the Knight and Johnson book makes me think we might not be barking up entirely the wrong tree.

Injustice in democratic theory

I have a new paper in Geoforum, just published online, titled Situating injustice in the geographies of democracy. It will be included in a special issue on space, contestation and the political, coming out of a workshop held in Zurich back in 2009, organised and now edited by Dave Featherstone, Benedikt Korf, Joris Van Wezemael. I’m not sure exactly when the whole issue will go live. My paper argues that contestation is rather more important to critical theories of deliberative democracy, broadly defined, than is usually acknowledged, and that it is understood in this work in ways that promise a more modest approach to thinking about the geographies of democratic politics than one finds in approaches that adopt a priori conceptions of what counts as ‘political’. It is one of a series of things I have been writing for the last couple of years on the topic of ‘all affected interests’, exploring how this idea from political science and political theory might be re-interpreted as the basis for thinking about geography and democracy; it’s the first of these pieces to actually get out into the world.