Jane Mansbridge (review date December 1987)
SOURCE: A review of Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, in American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 1341–42.
[In the following review, Mansbridge argues that Barber “distorts opposing views” such as representative government and anarchism. Mansbridge claims that Barber “argues by destroying straw monsters—caricatures of ideas that their adherents would never recognize.”]
In Strong Democracy Benjamin Barber argues powerfully for a government in which “all of the people govern themselves in at least some public matters at least some of the time” (p. xiv). With verve, style, passion, and insight, Barber explains how this ideal is possible, why we have never practiced it, and what conceptual and practical innovations might make it work.
Rejecting the “liberal” idea of a natural, pre-political state whose inhabitants are endowed with liberty, equality, and rights, Barber insists, correctly, that we acquire these goods through the process of governing ourselves in common. Rejecting as well the static, aggregative liberal conception of citizenship, Barber insists that citizens become capable of common purpose through the process of common governance rather than through the simple coincidence of preexisting interests. Such a politics involves activity, energy, and work. It involves institutions that help people create “public ends where there were none before” (p. 152), and individual interests that will “change shape and direction when subjected to these participatory processes” (p. 152). It involves a concept of political knowledge that is provisional, evolutionary, and mutable, “produced by an ongoing process of democratic talk, deliberation, judgment, and action” (p. 170). It involves a political judgment that is neither “subjective” nor “objective,” but rather proceeds from the “kind of ‘we’ thinking that compels individuals to reformulate … ‘I want x’ … as ‘x would be good for the community to which I belong’—an operation in social algebra for which not every ‘x’ will be suitable” (p. 171).
“At the heart of strong democracy is talk,” Barber writes (p. 173). And the section on talk is the most persuasive in the book. Strong democratic talk, he tells us, “entails listening no less than speaking; … is affective as well as cognitive; and … its intentionalism draws it out of the domain of pure reflection into the world of action” (p. 174). Barber contends, correctly I believe, that representative democracy (which he sometimes calls “thin” democracy) diminishes...
(The entire section is 1110 words.)