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Power in Action: democracy, citizenship and social justice by Steven Friedman

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Abstract

Power in Action is an important intervention into debates on politics and democracy at a critical time in the history of democratic rule globally. It is a thought-provoking, contentious and powerful case for re-thinking some traditional assumptions about how power works, and what democracy should be. Ultimately, the great strength of Power in Action is that it conceives of politics and democracy in ways that gives hopes to the activist rather than the politician or the civil servant. If change comes through collective action rather than institutions, then activism rather than elections is the better route to social justice. Furthermore, if democracy is people controlling decision over their lives, then the popular will rightfully trumps the expert knowledge of civil servants. Practically and normatively then, Power in Action conceives of politics and democracy in ways empowering to ordinary citizens and civil society rather than politicians and civil servants. It is, on its own terms, epistemically democratic: that is, a fundamentally empowering and democratic way of thinking about power and democracy.
Steven Friedman. 2018. Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice. Johannesburg:
Wits University Press. ISBN: 978-1-77614-302-3. R350
Review by Prof Laurence Piper, Department of Political Studies, University of the Western Cape. In
TRANSFORMATION 101 (2019) ISSN 0258-7696
Steven Friedman has long been one of South Africa’s premier public intellectuals, making invaluable
and thoughtful contributions on the political issues of the day. In Power in Action, he zooms out from
everyday issues to reflect on politics and democracy more generally, but it’s a view deeply informed
by quotidian struggles and also by the South African experience. At its heart, Friedman’s argument is
that contention and agency are what bring political change, and that making democracy real means
that the poor and marginalised must confront the state in an organised way and on an ongoing basis.
Only by challenging government every day through collective action will ordinary citizens claim the
power to influence decisions that affect their daily lives which for Friedman is the fundamental
meaning of democracy.
Politics as popular agency and contention, and democracy as popular sovereignty are key themes in
Power in Action, and they are themes that appear to run against the mainstream institutional
accounts of politics. However, Friedman is a sophisticated thinker, and he links agency to institutions
though the notion of collective action. In South Africa, we invariably think of protest and popular
mobilisation when we think of collection action, but as Friedman rightly points out, this is just one
part of the concept. Collective action is also becoming organised to engage the state through a suite
of tactics from lobbying, to participating in invited spaces, to contesting elections, to protest, to
forming alliances and setting media agendas, and so on and so forth. Indeed, Friedman notes that
routinized collective action may be more frequent and more important than protest, and that it is
through routinized collective action that the wealthy are better able to influence government
between elections.
In pointing to the centrality of politics between elections, Friedman appears to join the chorus of
participatory democrats in claiming that deepening democracy requires citizen participation in
decision-making. This reading is only half-true however. Power in Action includes a trenchant critique
of the pacifying and sedating effects of ‘invited’ spaces of government. Against this Friedman argues
that change only comes through the engagements ‘invented’ by popular movements that retain a
contentious spirit, even when engaging the state in routinized ways.
Throughout this account of politics and democracy the reader can detect an activist sensibility forged
in the heat of post-apartheid South African politics, especially the moments of significant policy
change brought about by social movements like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), to whom
Friedman dedicates a chapter. Much of the spirit of Power in Action is testimony to the remarkable
achievements of this social movement. In the early 2000s, the TAC effectively changed the HIV-AIDS
policy of a dominant political party with 70% of the popular vote, and a President dead set against
this policy change. The lessons of alliance formation, working international as well as locally,
politicising, organising and mobilising inside and outside formal institutions, all of this flows through
Friedman’s conceptions of politics and democracy.
Some larger implications…
Although conceived from an activist imaginary of post-apartheid South Africa, Power in Action
provides resources to read against some current trends in political thinking globally. First, against
contemporary arguments that democracy is falling under the assault of authoritarian capitalism and
resurgent nativist nationalisms Friedman holds that democracy has survived worse, and is still the
most popular form of government, including in Africa, and the only kind that can offer ordinary
people control over their lives. While he concedes that democracy might be staggering, it is not
about to fall and neither is it beyond rescue from the (supposed) dominance of the global market,
nor its (partial) origination in the west.
Friedman notes that the mainstream liberal conception of democracy is one particular form of the
idea of popular sovereignty that also contains certain elitist features. Indeed, it is the Anglo-American
model that the democratic consolidation paradigm wrongly assumes is the norm to which all new
democracies must aspire. Denouncing this approach as ‘vague, teleological, and ethnocentric,
Friedman argues that while who constitutes the demos maybe contested at the edges, and our rulers
may sometimes struggle to implement the decisions of the demos, it is the principle of popular
sovereignty that defines democracy. This means that ‘every adult human should have equal weight in
making the decisions that affect them’ (24). In our current context, popular sovereignty would be
expressed both when citizens vote in elections for office and referendums, and when citizens engage
with their representatives between elections.
Second, in placing much more emphasis on the democratic quality of governance between elections,
Friedman appears to join intellectual hands with the participatory democracy literature. Hence he
argues that the wealthy groups have routinized access to the state (that he terms routinized
collective action), whereas the poor and marginalised generally have very little of this unless they
demand it through mobilisation. This because a lack of social power constrains the poor and
marginalised from accessing the state to the same extent as ‘the suburbs’ and business. What is
required to deepening democracy are new ways of routinizing collective action between elections for
all social groups, especially the poor and marginalised.
Importantly though, Friedman departs from the participatory democratic literature in two important
ways. First, as noted already, he is deeply critical of invited spaces of participation set up by the state
both because they usually do not offer citizens power over decision-making but also, and this is the
second point, because they assume a homogeneity of identity and interests at the level of
community. For Friedman this flies in the face of the reality that communities are not homogenous
and that politics is driven by disagreement rather than consensus. Recognising these facts means
that we need to find ways of making the state responsive to emergent forms of collective action from
citizens.
Third, in affirming a normative conception of democracy as popular sovereignty rather than a model
that incorporates economic and political institutions (Held 2006); Friedman pushes back against the
tendency to label any forms of radical politics as populist. On most understandings, populism is the
idea that elites are dominating ordinary people, but there is a tendency on the liberal mainstream to
label any radical ideological politics as populist, whether left or right. While there is very little on
populism in Power in Action, Freidman nevertheless offers resources to criticise the conflation of
populism with non-liberal thought by pointing out that democracy is not expert governance of
complex systems, nor is it protections that limit special interests. If democracy is just popular
sovereignty, ideologies that criticise the limitations of liberal expertise, or checks and balances, or
the courts, are not necessarily populist.
Some questions for debate
Power in Action is a stimulating and provocative read, and offers tremendous resources for a left
activist conception of politics and democracy. I am sure that different readers will nit-pick at some of
the many sub-arguments of this wide-ranging book
1
, but ultimately Power in Action must be judged
on its three core claims points: that politics is about contention; that democracy about popular
sovereignty; and that political change comes through collective action.
The first of these claims may seem obvious in the era in which we live. However, following the
collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, a contrary theme in mainstream democratic theory was the
triumph of reason over contention, manifest in ideas such as Rawls’ ‘overlapping consensus’ and
Habermas’ ‘ideal speech situation’. Similar conflict transcending sensibilities were evident in most
versions of participatory democracy and in mainstream technocratic conceptions of ‘good
governance’ in international development discourse. In affirming the centrality of disagreement and
conflict to politics, including democratic politics, Friedman distances himself from the liberal
mainstream in ways that echo both Schimittian conservative and Marxist radical tropes. However,
Friedman is probably closest to contemporary post-Marxists like Chantel Mouffe and new
republicans like Lawrence Hamilton in affirming political solutions to conflict, and advocating for new
forms of adversarial democracy. The value of this more conflictual conception of politics has been
inflated by the tumultuous political events of the last three years. The fact that Friedman developed
his conception of politics before current events made them fashionable is powerful evidence in
favour of his insightfulness.
The second main claim of Friedman’s argument is that democracy is first and fundamentally the
principle that, ‘every adult human should have equal weight in making the decisions that affect
them’. From this normative stance, Friedman criticises the shortcomings of actually existing
democracy in South Africa and beyond. More specifically, Friedman calls into question the
democratic credentials of the liberal model in respect of both expert knowledge and the checks on
popular will. While Friedman’s position is consistent, it begs the larger question of whether pure
democracy is desirable or even possible under contemporary socio-economic conditions globally.
What of the argument, following Weber and Habermas, that modern economic and political systems
have evolved to produce a growing division of labour, and have deepened our interdependency in
ever more complex knowledge systems? Assuming we need the effective management of these
systems to survive and prosper, is there not a role for expert knowledge alongside that of popular
accountability? Indeed a key lesson of governance in post-apartheid South Africa is the cost to
ordinary citizens of displacing or ignoring expert knowledge (Palmer et al 2017). Similarly, what are
the lessons from the last ten years, of an executive unchecked by parliament, opposition parties, the
media and the courts? Indeed, is it even realistic to expect that enhanced forms of collective action
between elections would have corrected the process of state-capture at all, never mind more
efficiently than the current institutions have? Lastly, what of the economic forces that drive state
capture? Are checks, balances, and the courts not important resources against investors in our neo-
liberal age?
The third main claim of Friedman’s argument is that it is conscious and directed collective action,
whether in the form of popular mobilisation and protest, or in the form of more structured or
routinized engagement and lobbying, that is the key form of power to influence rule in democracy.
The claim that politics between elections and outside of choosing rulers is perhaps more important
to democracy is rarely made, and an urgent invocation to study lobbying, formal engagement, and
1
I can imagine democratisation specialists taking issue with his critique of the mainstream account (is it really
that novel); decolonial scholars questioning whether he has engaged the strongest views from their field (as
opposed to a quirky Comaroff piece on Botswana); empiricists wondering why most of the sources are ten
years older than they ought to be; feminists concerned at the silence on gender issues; civil society scholars
pondering the exceptionalism of the TAC; and so one.
informal networks and practices that link the wealthy and powerful. In a time of new forms of
representation through social media, understanding the extra-institutional ways that politicians
connect to contending social groups is imperative, not least because of the biases it introduces in to
the democratic process (see Hobden 2018 on this). At the same time though, this insight offers hope
to groups marginalised at elections, or in the media, that policy change is nevertheless possible
through various forms of collective action.
However, I wonder whether Friedman’s conception of collective action, especially routinized
collective action, is as different from the status quo of ‘invited spaces’ that he criticises. Will new
forms of engagement be less hamstrung by a lack of bindingness and political capture (Piper & Von
Lieres 2016)? More importantly, is it really access between elections that explains the bias of the
state? Surely different political parties advance the different policies when in government. Is it not
the case that governance favours the wealthy for a range of reasons other than lobbying such as
election and party funding; sharing the same social backgrounds and similar worldviews as the
powerful; being dependent on business for taxes, economic growth and jobs? Ultimately then,
should we not recognise the role of institutions, as well as agency, in politics?
The take away…
Power in Action is an important intervention into debates on politics and democracy at a critical time
in the history of democratic rule globally. It is a thought-provoking, contentious and powerful case
for re-thinking some traditional assumptions about how power works, and what democracy should
be. Ultimately, the great strength of Power in Action is that it conceives of politics and democracy in
ways that gives hopes to the activist rather than the politician or the civil servant. If change comes
through collective action rather than institutions, then activism rather than elections is the better
route to social justice. Furthermore, if democracy is people controlling decision over their lives, then
the popular will rightfully trumps the expert knowledge of civil servants. Practically and normatively
then, Power in Action conceives of politics and democracy in ways empowering to ordinary citizens
and civil society rather than politicians and civil servants. It is, on its own terms, epistemically
democratic: that is, a fundamentally empowering and democratic way of thinking about power and
democracy.
References
Held, D. (2006). Models of democracy. Stanford University Press.
Hobden, C. (2018). Unequal Political Engagement and the Possible Risks to
Democracy. Theoria, 65(156), 1-26.
Piper, L., & von Lieres, B. (2016). Mediating between state and citizens: the significance of the
informal politics of third-party representation in the global south. Citizenship Studies, 19(6-7), 696-
713.
Palmer, I., Moodley, N., & Parnell, S. (2017). Building a capable state: service delivery in post-
apartheid South Africa. Zed.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
This article argues that we should take more seriously the role of intermediaries in relationships between states and citizens in the global south. More specifically it holds that the practice of mediation, the third party representation of citizens to states and vice versa, is a widespread and important political practice in this context. Largely distinct from the contentious politics and popular mobilisation of social movements, mediation is more a politics of negotiation and bargaining by representatives. Developed as an emergent analysis from multiple case studies, mediation is a broad concept that includes practices that at other times might be described as lobbying, clientelism and coercion, but that we conceptualise in terms of claiming legitimacy to speak for the poor and marginalised, and theorise in terms of a democratic deficit between formal political institutions and these groups. In addition to identifying different kinds of mediators, the article categorises mediation in terms of the orientation and nature of various mediatory practices. Lastly, the article identifies at least three explanations for mediation including the endurance of pre-democratic political relations and practices, new forms of social exclusion in post-colonial democracies and the erosion of state authority brought about by neo-liberal policies and globalisation.
Article
Citizens increasingly engage with political issues in new ways by addressing politicians via social media, campaigning at international forums, or boycotting corporate entities. These forms of engagement move beyond more regulated electoral politics and are rightly celebrated for the ways they increase representation and provide new channels of accountability. Yet, despite these virtues, political engagement beyond voting inevitably tends to entrench and amplify inequality in citizen influence on political decision-making. The tendency toward inequality undermines relational equality between citizens and muddies the channels of political accountability and responsibility. This article unpacks the ostensible tension and argues that it reveals to us another strength in views which hold the state to be citizens’ collective project and provides argumentative resources to motivate democracies to give due attention to ensuring that democratic participatory channels remain fit for purpose in an ever-changing society.
Building a capable state: service delivery in postapartheid South Africa
  • I Palmer
  • N Moodley
  • S Parnell
Palmer, I., Moodley, N., & Parnell, S. (2017). Building a capable state: service delivery in postapartheid South Africa. Zed.