385.4 Is mass society a threat to representative democracy? Revisitng David Riesman's theory of the other-directed character

Thursday, August 2, 2012: 5:03 PM
Faculty of Economics, TBA
Oral Presentation
Pekka SULKUNEN , Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Since Montesqieu, representative democracy has been based on the idea that interest groups form parliaments through competitive elections, and majority coalitions legislate in favour of their supporters. Declining electoral participation, rise of non-interest based right-wing parties, contingent coalitions, personalized electoral success and scandal-driven media presentation of politics indicate a fundamental crisis in representative democracy. Mass society theories that flourished after the Second world war, still current in political diagnostics of advanced liberalism, predicted a decline of representative democracy on the basis of homogenisation of mass consumption societies. Alluding to pre-war experiences, the mass society threat was seen to involve totalitarian rule combined with highly organized bureaucracy serving the interests of elites, especially the military industrial complex. This paper examines the underlying presuppositions of mass society theory, and argues that the homogeneity argument is insufficient to fit the realities of advanced liberal societies. Following David Riesman, it is emphasized that the other-directed character grows from unstable interest group identities, but its most important determinant is not sameness but agency and therefore difference. To have agency is to orient oneself to others as a self, as unique, separate and autonomous subject. This is vindicated by trends in public administration since the 1980s, which stress citizens’ self-control, autonomy and partnership with the public sector rather than conformity and authoritarianism. Instead of interest conflicts, political disputes arise around contradictions between difference and autonomy in societies where agency is a fundamental principle of justification. Universal autonomy requires homogeneity but agency stresses difference and uniqueness.