Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.1 (Spring 2009): Book Reviews: "Democracy Across Borders: Dêmos to Dêmoi" by James Bohman [Full Text]

Mar 26, 2009

Democracy Across Borders: From Dêmos to Dêmoi, James Bohman (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 232 pp., $35 cloth.

Barbara Buckinx (Reviewer)

In this highly persuasive account of transnational democracy, James Bohman focuses on extending the political subject from a unitary people, the dêmos, to plural and overlapping dêmoi. Bohman, the Danforth Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University, notes the extensive interdependence that characterizes the new circumstances of global politics, and argues that states have reacted either by strengthening state boundaries and increasing centralized authority or by delegating political authority to agents beyond the state. According to Bohman, the first approach has proved ineffective, and the second has led to the proliferation of principal/agent relationships in such areas as international finance, whereby the agents rather than the citizen-principals set the terms of the relationship. As a result, citizens risk losing the ability to initiate public deliberation and to "influence the terms of cooperation with others and not be ruled by them" (p. 27). These normative powers comprise the core of their status as democratic citizens, and their absence renders them vulnerable to political domination.

While many global governance scholars diagnose a global democratic deficit and conclude that the world order is in need of more democracy, Bohman interestingly posits that the more fundamental issue at stake is the democratic criterion itself. Defining democracy as "that set of institutions and procedures by which individuals are empowered as free and equal citizens to form and change the terms of their common life together, including democracy itself" (p. 45), he asks what it would mean for a transnational polity to be sufficiently democratic. Following John Dewey, he responds to the "new social facts" of the global order with a reconstruction of the conception of democracy that dissociates it from the institutional form of the state, whose "structure of sovereign power and commitment to exclusive political identity is at odds with the universal principles of democracy" (p. 4).

If a democracy of a dêmos is inadequate, what is its transnational alternative? Rejecting the model of an expanding and increasingly global, unitary dêmos, Bohman argues that multiple, overlapping dêmoi are a better context for the realization of nondomination. Connected to one another by public spheres, these various political communities provide opportunities for the exercise of the normative powers of citizenship. The Internet is singled out as a promising new medium, because it is a distributive "public of publics" (p. 77) rather than a public sphere in the more familiar, unified sense, and it can mediate communication between and among different publics. Citizens can properly resist domination only when their right to be recognized as members in the human political community is acknowledged as a basic human right. Human rights must thus be reconceptualized as membership rights in the political community of humanity, with humanity serving as the addressee of rights claims.

The optimal global institutional structure for "realizing political rights as human rights," Bohman argues, is a large and differentiated federation that disperses power at different levels and in different locations. While power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, it must also be transferred "to higher-level institutions to the extent that such a transfer enhances the normative powers of citizens" (p. 156). In other words, transnational democracy must achieve a balance between the principles of subsidiarity and federalism.

However, while Bohman is right to insist on democracy across, rather than beyond, borders, his commitments to democracy and the human political community seem to lead him elsewhere. In fact, given his particular formulation of "republican cosmopolitanism" (p. 8), it is puzzling that he shies away from advocating for a fully integrated political system, or world state. In one of a few references on the topic, he mentions the republican tradition's suspicion of the world state, singling out the "deeply undemocratic character of current international political authority" (p. 60). However, an additional, and central, concern of republicans—and one that Bohman does not share—is their desire to preserve a role for the state, given the state's unique standing as the guarantor of the freedom of its citizens. Unlike most scholars in the republican tradition, Bohman does not attach special significance to the state: he considers it a less than optimal institutional location for democratic politics, because it cannot respect the universal character of the democratic ideal. Rather, Bohman's reluctance seems to stem from his analysis that there is no global dêmos, and that post-national democracy must therefore be a transnational democracy of dêmoi, rather than a cosmopolitan democracy that organizes a dêmos. However, this worry seems misplaced, since a "republican cosmopolitan" world state could conceivably be modeled on a multinational state, such as Belgium or Switzerland, consisting of several coexisting dêmoi.

Moreover, while it is certainly the case that a world state carries the risk of unaccountable or undemocratic global authority, the federal structure that Bohman proposes is also not immune to such risk, and the remedies that he provides could be applied to both institutional arrangements. In either Bohman’s federation or a world state, potentially dominating forms of global authority could be countered through the institutionalization of the normative rights of membership. Importantly, Bohman posits that a world state is unnecessary because federalism adequately disperses power across different levels. However, given the propensity of powerful units—states, civil society organizations, and the like—to dominate weaker ones, Bohman’s faith in the democratic potential of noninstitutionalized public spheres (such as the Internet) seems overly optimistic. While I agree with Bohman that the emergence of a multiplicity of public spheres and communication across dêmoi must be encouraged, he understates the importance of global political institutions, which alone can be relied upon to enforce respect for human rights in a meaningful way. He concedes that "some global political institutions" would be required to secure nondomination (p. 128, emphasis mine), but this does not seem sufficient. And while it is certainly true that global institutions need not be brought under the umbrella of a world state, Bohman, unlike other republicans, does not give the reader a sufficient justification for eschewing comprehensive political integration. This concern notwithstanding, Democracy across Borders: From Dêmos to Dêmoi is an important contribution to the literature on normative global governance and an elegant argument for republican federalism. It also provides a useful corrective to John Dryzek’s institutional minimalism and the model of transnational democracy offered by David Held. Readers who are concerned with democracy and justice in the global sphere should find this book of significant interest.

—BARBARA BUCKINX The reviewer is a Research Associate at the Political Theory Project, Brown University.

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