Deliberative democracy, green society

Over the past 30 years or so, green political thinkers have offered us a variety of approaches to dealing with the ecological crisis. These proposals range from a deeply unattractive authoritarianism (eg from Garrett Hardin) to an appealing but ultimately utopian anarchism (eg from Murray Bookchin). Both of these options reject the possibility of a liberal democratic state reorganising itself sufficiently in order to cope with the ecological crisis. Present circumstances might bear out that analysis.

But since authoritarianism and anarchism, for very different reasons, seem outrageous and/or impossible propositions to most of us, are we, therefore, forced to fall back on liberal democracy as the only possible framework for a green society? Or there are other green alternatives beyond authoritarianism and anarchism?

A paper by Doug Torgerson (2008) in the journal The Good Society, discusses the prospects for a self-consciously ‘green democratic state’. The need for such a development is made clear as Torgerson takes issue with liberal democracy on the following grounds:

Liberal democracy calls itself democratic by adhering to a self-serving conception of democracy as being strictly a form of government … What liberal democracy had to ignore, or discount as largely irrelevant, is democracy conceived as a form not only of government but also of society. (p.22)

Torgerson describes how citizens of liberal democracy are largely regarded as rational “individuals acting instrumentally to realize their preferred outcomes in a competitive context” determined by the “legal rights and obligations that make up the rules of the game” (p.19). This is the citizen as ‘homo economicus’ or the “possessive individual”.

By Torgerson’s analysis the possessive individual is subject to “systematic patterns of incentives … that serve to shape and direct [her or his] behaviour” (p.23). These incentives are structured by “that complex of – partly conflicting and partly cooperative – formal organisations that is central to the functioning of advanced industrial society.” And these organisations are not just state institutions – they include “the great corporations, their profound impact upon the shape and direction of public policy, … and  their pervasive influence in propagating the consumerism of mass society” (p.22).

The classic green alternative to this possessive individual is the cooperative community member. The problem here, Torgerson writes, is that this alternative image of the citizen tends to emphasise personal responsibility and “risks a moralism” (p.23) that deflects attention from the structural issues described above. So while there is much to be said for the cooperative community member, focussing on the moral improvement of individuals alone will never begin to address the entrenched power of consumerism.

However, if we return to Torgerson’s criticism of liberal democracy, we see there is another way forward: democracy conceived as a form of society. This is “the key to the political project of constituting a green democracy” (p.23), a green public sphere which is inhabited by politically engaged, publicly active citizens.

This green public sphere must move well beyond the bureaucratic decision-making machinery of liberal democracy because “concrete decisions – and, indeed, the very question of what constitutes a ‘green’ initiative – cannot be reduced to matters of knowledge and calculation, but emphatically remain matters of opinion” (p.22).

Torgerson suggests deliberative democracy is the way forward.

Australian political scientist John Dryzek wrote Discursive democracy in 1990, a book which, by some accounts, kicked off the current interest in deliberative democratic processes. In the book Dryzek returns to the roots of classical democracy and Aristotle’s idea of rationality “as a product of collective interaction.” By this measure, he argues, “it is practical reason, and not power, that defines the very idea of politics” (p.9).

In this way, the technocrat, the lone ‘objective expert,’ is deposed (though is not necessarily silenced altogether) and it is the collective interaction of engaged citizens which is the basis of deliberative democracy. so deliberative democracy must be distinguished from representative democracy – citizens are not representatives to be lobbied and captured, or party hacks to be whipped into line, they are simply themselves.

And this is also not just dry theory from ivory towers. Lately Dryzek has been involved in the Australian Citizens’ Parliament project, a large scale investigation of deliberative processes in action. In the US the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, formed in 2002, seeks “to nurture justice, innovation and democracy throughout society through the widespread use of transformational communication methods like dialogue and deliberation” in the belief that “elevating the quality of thinking and communication in organizations and among citizens is key to solving humanity’s most pressing problems.”

However, such processes must be much more than ‘talking shops’ offered by the state as a sop to public opinion. In the context of New Zealand’s legislation on the ownership of the foreshore and seabed, Moana Jackson has described how “Maori are reduced to bystanders to be consulted, and if the views prove unpalatable they can effectively be ignored.” My sense is that, for Maori, it is a situation that is repeated over and over again – symbolic consultations and hui that are rapidly reduced to reports gathering dust in a basement.

This is why Torgerson writes of constituting green democracy – because constitutional change to empower deliberative democracy is needed to overcome the tendency towards corporate oligarchy and state authoritarianism that now plagues liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, we might well wonder about the sorts of conclusions reached by deliberative assemblies of citizens. As Torgerson writes, the potential for considered debate appears to be sharply reduced in “the present historical context of propagandistic mass communication” (p.22) (I’m thinking Fox News here).

Thus one of the goals of the green political project must be to prize the quality of debate itself, and to encourage citizens to engage not just with functional (decision-making) ends in mind but also engage in debate “at least in part for the value that resides in such action” (p.23). That can, perhaps, be the beginning of the journey down the road to historic social (and constitutional) change.


John Dryzek (1990) Discursive democracy: Politics, policy and political science. Cambridge: CUP.
Douglas Torgerson (2008) Constituting green democracy: A political project. The Good Society, 17(2), 18-24.

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