Political agency under conditions of democratic duress

Pham, Lien (1); Kaleja, Ance (2) (2018). 'Political Agency under Conditions of Democratic Duress' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Globalisation, increasing inequality, emerging power of autocratic States and their rising economic power have led to the escalation of new forms of political ideologies and democratic representation. These issues could be said to be responses to legitimacy crisis of existing forms of political institutions seen as limiting economic and democratic choices, or result of political actors adapting their strategies to the changing political landscape accordingly. In this paper, we want to explore the idea that democracy is not threatened by these events; it is rather enlivened because these phenomena allow us to examine the conditions for the practice of democracy, that is, we can gain a deeper understanding of political participation, dialogue and interactions of citizens in the public sphere (Habermas 1989).
We suggest that democracy could be examined in terms of political agency. Here, we draw on four dimensions of Amartya Sen’s (1985, 1999) agency: (1) individual intrinsic and instrumental values of democracy; (2) individual goals and (3) responsibility for democracy, and (4) the power of the individual to deliberate their political voice in light of their values, goals and responsibilities. The first three dimensions comprise political freedom or opportunity for political agency; the fourth dimension refers to the process of political agency. We argue that political freedom is critical for understanding democracy within specific locations and is dependent on individuals’ practical experiences in political deliberations.
The paper will illustrate how these dimensions of political agency can be examined through two examples. The first example is a case of an individual's political dissent through social media in Vietnam. The case highlights the importance of informational role of institutions in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny (Sen 2009), that paradoxically, also govern the way that knowledge is transferred or diffused, what Foucault (1991) terms governmentality. Although the lack of independence in any form of public communication such as the media limits the extent to which people can debate the ideas put out, the case suggests that the idea of free speech is never foreclosed.
The second example concerns the emergence and activities of societal groups in Jordan, which have provided an opportunity for people to advance their interests to the government and gain considerable public and social capital by filling the void created by the failure of formal institutions to effectively ensure services of social protection (Larzilliere 2012). Ironically then, people’s activities in the non-governmental space become closely political and while they should not be seen necessarily as a component of democratisation or collective empowerment (Brand 1995; Wiktorowicz 2000), they have inadvertently created opportunities for political agency, the rules for which have been negotiated within the context of Jordanian society.
While both of these cases occur in States which are technically authoritarian, we want to emphasise the conditions and conditionings of political agency, even in contexts that may leave a lot to desire. Understanding political agency necessarily calls for an examination of individuals’ surrounding social structures and relations in the practices of political participation because such structures and relations inform their values, goals, responsibilities and practices, but it is how individuals respond to these structures and relations that ultimately create their democratic participation; the latter is what constitute conditions for people’s democratic power and democratic changes of which we are ultimately interested in.
Furthermore, persons (whether they are research participants or policy analysts) can exercise public reasoning, which Habermas (1989) and other scholars have brought forth for democracy, by seeing how their understanding and values of democracy may shape their goals and responsibilities to the State or society; moreover, how they are shaped by, and can reshape, their surrounding social structures and relations. In this way political agency is an element of social justice, and it is inescapable discursive. Thus, we argue that examining political agency in light of the social conditions that give rise to its discourse contribute to the ideas that democracy can make. Along with Sen’s (2009) view, we consider political agency is important in itself and for the pursuit of justice, if one accepts the intrinsic as well as instrumental value of democracy.

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