Can there be a global Demos? An agency-based approach

Philosophy and Public Affairs 38 (1):76-110 (2010)
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Can there be a global demos? The current debate about this topic is divided between two opposing camps: the “pessimist” or “impossibilist” camp, which holds that the emergence of a global demos is either conceptually or empirically impossible, and the “optimist” or “possibilist” camp, which holds that the emergence of a global demos is conceptually as well as empirically possible and an embryonic version of it already exists. However, the two camps agree neither on a common working definition of a global demos, nor on the relevant empirical facts, so it is difficult to reconcile their conflicting outlooks. We seek to move the debate beyond this stalemate. We argue that existing conceptions of a demos are ill-suited for capturing what kind of a global demos is needed to facilitate good global governance, and we propose a new conception of a demos that is better suited for this purpose. We suggest that some of the most prominent conceptions of a demos have focused too much on who the members of a demos are and too little on what functional characteristics the demos must have in order to perform its role in facilitating governance within the relevant domain. Our new proposal shifts the emphasis from the first, “compositional” question to the second, “performative” one, and provides a more “agency-based” account of a global demos. The key criterion that a collection of individuals must meet in order to qualify as a demos is that it is not merely demarcated by an appropriate membership criterion, but that it can be organized, democratically, so as to function as a state-like agent. Compared to the existing, predominantly “compositional” approaches to thinking about the demos, this agency-based approach puts us into a much better position to assess the empirical prospects for the emergence of a global demos that can facilitate good global governance.

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Christian List
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München


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