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The limits to change: liberal democracy and the problem of
political agency

The limits to change: liberal democracy and the problem of
political agency Thumbnail


This thesis explores the limits to purposive change in liberal democracies. Its aim is to provide new analytical tools and concepts to understand better the basis of liberal democracy’s legitimacy, the mechanisms and limitations of political agency at work in it, and the ways in which societal change is delimited and channelled in what is today the most dominant form of political order.

The thesis contains three conceptual innovations. The first concerns the nature of liberal democracy, which is shown to involve an ‘epistemic’ dimension of legitimacy on which the system’s stability relies. This explanatory account of legitimacy argues that in a modern democracy the paradoxical relation of the people to itself as both ruler and ruled can only be stabilised when both sides of the equation refer to the same ‘independent’ reality – a reality that has to be generated outside their precarious relationship and hence (for example) in the capitalist market economy. The second innovation regards an analytical distinction between three fundamental ‘modes’ of political agency – decision, choice and solution – whose deployment is strictly controlled by the systemic requirements of ‘epistemic legitimacy’. The result is shown to be an ‘agentic deadlock’ in liberal democracy, which inhibits purposive societal change. The third innovation concerns the very idea of ‘change’ itself. Based on Wittgenstein’s notion of grammar a concept of transformation is developed, which allows us to account for the subtle and long-term changes in the discursive structure of liberal-democratic societies.

After comparing these conceptual innovations with the dominant aggregative, deliberative and radical approaches to democratic theory, the thesis concludes with a suggestion for an institutional innovation that might help break the agentic deadlock in liberal democracy.

Publication Date Sep 1, 2011
Keywords liberal democracy; agency; decision; choice; transformation; change; governance; legitimacy; direct democracy; radical democracy; deliberative democracy; capitalism; political paradox; democratic innovation; initiative; referendum.


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