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Barry Hindess and the Critique of Democracy

Author(s): Baogang He
Source: Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 36, No. 1, Theory, Politics, Power: Essays
in Honour of Barry Hindess (February 2011), pp. 17-24
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
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Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

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Alternatives: Global, Local, Political
36(1) 17-24

Barry Hindess and the © The Author(s) 2011

Reprints and permission:

Critique of Democracy
DOI: 10.1177/0304375411401834


Baogang He1


In the wake of the collapse of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union, liberal democracy
triumphantly celebrated as the "end of history." Against this backdrop, Hindess wrote a num
of critical essays launching his intellectual critique of liberal democracy. His approach
primarily conceptual, highlighting the problems and weaknesses of the conceptualizatio
democracy and democratization. This article reviews and offers a brief assessment of the ke
arguments made in Hindess' writings on democracy and democratization. In particular
attempts to summarize the methodological steps through which Hindess engages concep
critique. While offering an appreciation of Hindess'analysis, insight, and intellectual integrity
also addresses some difficulties in his arguments.

democratic theory, liberal democracy, conceptual critique, methodological procedures,
governing community

Barry Hindess is a radical democrat, coming from the British left tradition. His critique of lib
democracy aims to create a space in which political alternatives may be found. His writings
democracy are an integral part of his larger intellectual project that attempts to "chainsaw" m
Western social and political theories such as rational choice theory, class analysis, structural ex
nation, and interested-based analysis.1
In the wake of the collapse of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union, liberal democracy
triumphantly celebrated as the "end of history" by many people, including Francis Fukuyam
Against this backdrop, Hindess wrote a number of critical essays in the 1990s developing a s
intellectual critique of liberal democracy. His approach is primarily conceptual, highlighting
problems and weaknesses of the conceptualization of democracy and democratization. His vie
is so radical that he effectively rejects the concept of democracy as outdated and irrelevant to
temporary conditions. His writings, it has been said, dropped scholarly "B-52 bombs" over the
tlefield of democracy studies,2 greatly disturbing many who believe in liberal democracy.

' School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

Corresponding Author:
Baogang He, School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

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18 Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 36(I)

This article aims to review and assess the key argument

In particular, it attempts to summarize the methodolog
conceptual critique. While offering a full appreciation of
integrity, it will also address some difficulties in his arg

Hindess' Conceptual Critique

Concepts are central elements of propositions and theor
"bricks" of theoretical building. The critique of concept
front of Hindess' work. His critiques are often as sharp
highlight the internal and external contradictions express
that official statistics embody concepts and that we there
concepts.3 Hindess is, however, not interested in investig
nor in the classification of all democratic theories.
Rather, Hindess examines the features, forms, structures, and viability of concepts and points out
the intellectual weaknesses of conceptualization. He is particularly concerned with identifying what
intellectual tools are available and how those tools are to be used. He argues that political theory
does not necessarily explain phenomena nor provide a theoretical foundation for politics, but that
we can at least appropriate and sharpen the tools we use. He declared, once to me, that "I am a the
oretical tool-maker or shaper, not a normative theorist."
Hindess' method seems to have its own set of procedures. It starts with an analysis of a given
concept where he often surprises us with an in-depth elucidation of the common views, assumptions,
or features of completely different thoughts and thinkers. Then he develops a logical analysis of the
conceptual relations and especially the intellectual tension between concepts or theories, followed
by an empirical testing of whether the presupposition of the concept in discussion conflicts with
the actual world, and then proceeds to give an empirical analysis of how concepts operate in the
real world context. Eventually, he arrives at a conclusion about the inappropriateness of
The following five methodological procedures or steps are my reconstruction of Hindess' method
which he has used in many of his writings, though he may not follow them strictly. These descrip
tions may oversimplify but nevertheless systemize Hindess' approach. I have abstracted them from
Hindess' writing with the intention of emphasizing five methodological procedures or steps that I
believe would be of great value in providing a practical guideline on how to develop a conceptual
analysis for graduate students.
Step 1: Clarifying the Connation of Democracy. We must ask ourselves what exactly Hindess'
understanding of democracy is. Democracy, he claimed back in 1983, is "a medium and form of
political struggle, accepting not only the dominance of parliamentary democracy, but also the role
of popular democratic forms."4 Later, in 1989, he put forward a more succinct definition. Hindess
upholds democracy as a special form of self-government where the people as a whole exercise power
and have equal political standing in the republic. He rejects the "realist" understandings of democ
racy as that which is the least worse of modern state mechanisms for securing measures of respon
sibility on the governor's part for the people it governs.5
There have been many revisions of the concept of democracy: extending to the state level and
further extending to global level. David Held, for example, argues that the contemporary conditions
have changed and that concepts and theories of democracy must change accordingly.6 In the process,
the original meaning of democracy has been lost. The conceptual stretch of the notion of democracy
is a significant departure from the classical idea of democracy. Hindess, however, maintains an intel
lectual integrity, sticking to the original principle and meaning of democracy.

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He 19

Step 2: Identifying the Common Theme of a Self-Governing Community. Hindess has a remark
able procedure for identifying the common presuppositions of a given concept and dissecting it into
several parts. Let us see how he does this in critiquing the concept of democracy. Hindess criticizes
two main democratic theories: John Keane's idea of the democratization of society and Robert
Dahl's idea of democratic decisions.7 Despite their differences, both assume the idea of a self
governing community of citizens.8 There are two important features here. First, this idea presup
poses identification in terms of a clear political demarcation of territory and of population. Secondly,
government must be conceived of as deriving its authority from the community. The community
itself is not only commonly conceptualized as a republic or a community of citizens but also as
an organic whole. If all citizens have equal political standing then the majority of citizens (the
demos) rule and the community may be considered democratic.9
The theme of a self-governing community of citizens has two elements: the idea of a self
governing community, and that of a community of citizens. Self-governing may be understood,
in Hobbesian contract terms, as a correlative sphere of autonomy within which citizens should be
free to act within the framework of rules for which they are collectively responsible. Self
governing also may be understood as that by which important matters of public concern are decided
by some appropriate democratic process within the control of the demos or its delegated agencies.
The idea of delegation as an authorization has been used to bring representative government into the
model of a self-governing community. A community of citizens is one in which independent persons
participate in the government of people with equal rights and capacity to action that is not at the beck
and call or mercy of the state.10
Step 3: Analyzing the Inescapable Tensions. After breaking down the concept of democracy into
different parts, Hindess proceeds with an analysis of the logical tension belying them. The tensions
between liberty and equality and between individualism and collectivism are well-known. Hindess is
not interested in these so much as he is in pointing out the deepening chasm in democratic theory.
The tension between the idea of self-governing and that of a community of citizens is of particular
interest to Hindess as it been a major preoccupation of Western political thought right through to the
modern period. Liberal and "realist" theories of democracy have insisted on the autonomy of the
citizen, but the sway of the rule of law is often at the expense of any real participation. Citizens are
effectively alienated from any control or say in the final process. The socialist agenda has been to
rectify this by bringing economic activity and therefore property within the responsibility of an
active self-government.11
In the republican tradition citizens are required to participate in political life as independent
agents, yet, there is a temptation to rely on government or an expectation that the government right
fully interfere when it comes to the interests of citizens as a whole.12 The new socialist republican
ism that Keane poses attempts to align autonomy, participation, and the economy under the rubric of
socialist concern. As good as this sounds, it will never work. Democracy and socialism do not mix
together all that well. The inclination of democracy is to exercise final control over and above the
socialist inclination to defend the autonomy of citizens.13
Similarly, a tension persists between idea of democracy itself and democratic institutions. Polit
ical arrangements that secure some approximation to self-government often do not correspond to the
way in which institutions are arranged themselves. The nonpolitical life of the community or the
outside world for that matter is never entirely subordinated to the institutional arrangements of com
munity self-government. When institutional arrangements fall short of greater democratic ideals, a
crisis of the idea of democracy is likely to occur as it lends itself to further abstraction and becomes
something unattainable.
As noted above, in developing his critique of the concept of democracy, Hindess examines a clus
ter of concepts or neighboring concepts including autonomous citizens, the self-governing commu
nity, power, and governments. Importantly, he discusses the conceptual relationship relating to other

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20 Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 36(I)

concepts in Western political thought. He employed th

relationship between democratic ideas and a notion of s
conducted in terms of the notion of sovereignty, and pr
of the mechanisms of appointment and decision, and
Step 4: Testing the Assumption Against an Empirical World. Concepts come from an empincal
world. A concept must have certain observable attributes that can be measured and codified
empirically, and empirically verified or rejected. Hindess is not interested in measuring and
codifying the concept of democracy but in examining the assumption of a concept against
empirical facts. This empirical testing is an integral part of his conceptual critique albeit not
a dominant feature.
According to Hindess, the idea of a self-governing community of citizens faces a significant
challenge from the world of organizations. The idea of a self-governing community assumes citizens
are the only politically significant actors in the community. However, in contemporary world reali
ties, the concept of corporate actor including state agencies, political parties, interest groups, and
capitalist enterprises, is more important than individual citizens.
Dahl once summarized the importance of organizations in his pluralist model of democracy,
(a) Legislation assemblies, state agencies, and other organizations are instruments of the community
of citizens, (b) Organizations are necessary to the operation of democracy on a large scale, he sug
gests, to the extent that democracy is mutually controlled by a variety of organizations.16 For Hin
dess, in considering Dahl's idea of mutual control, it would be naive to suppose that political
activities of organizations could be restricted to trying to influence the views of citizens and their
elected representatives. Although organizations should be subjected to law, there are good reasons
for doubting the effectiveness of law in many cases. There is no reason therefore to expect or antici
pate that organizations will confine themselves to performing democratic functions. Political activ
ity among organizations is nonetheless an unavoidable reality, but we should not imagine that the
problems that organizations pose for democracy can easily be solved by constitutional arrangements
involving particular organizations and the relations between them, as some of the pluralist writings
of G. D. H. Cole and Harold Laski appear to suggest.17
The idea of a self-governing community is inherently problematic. It is unlikely that we can
return to a concept of citizen-based democracy, especially when adding organizations into the equa
tion. Such a model for democracy has indeed always been something of an elusive dream. The mas
sive growth of organizations in the modern period has made it all the more so. Organizations as
actors pose very real problems for the idea of a political community consisting of citizens.18
There are limits to what a community can do or control. This is another problem that challenges
the idea of self-governing community. External events such as the world economy and the flow of
refugees, especially the causes and potential consequences, are not within community control.19
Nondemocratic influences or arrangements invariably impact on institutions, processes, and out
comes, well beyond the orb of any self-governing community.20 Internal elements such as the mar
ket undermine community control. Many perceive the market as having its own self-regulating force
beyond government or state interference let alone some notional community control. In short, dem
ocratic self-government and the life of the community depend on conditions that cannot be entirely
within political control.21
Step 5: Exposing the Weak Conceptualization of Democracy/Democratization. After identifying,
dissecting, analyzing, and finally rejecting the common assumption of the concept of democracy on
empirical grounds, Hindess puts a "chainsaw" through the general conceptualization of democracy
or democratization. The political communities of the Western democracies, he argues, cannot
adequately be thought of as communities of citizens.22 Democracy or democratization is illusory,
contradictory, and outdated.

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He 21

Hindess also argues that the problem is not so much that, as Quentin Skinner's approach suggests,
realist or empirical theories of democracy are ideological but rather that the description of a society
as (approximating to) a democracy implies a specification of the community as a political entity that
is misleading in important respects. Hindess' concern is not so much with the empirical circum
stances as with the conceptualization of those circumstances in terms of democracy and
Such an inadequate conceptualization creates political problems. It is the widespread commit
ment to the ideas of democracy and of self-governing government that may itself create problems.
The slogan of democratization is of limited value in identifying and providing solutions to practical
problems. Hindess affirms the need for a different framework for approaching and resolving difficult
issues. He rejects as naive the belief that some new and wonderful theory can be developed to
resolve practical problems. He also rejects normative theories of democracy which are not useful
to analyze actual problems.

From Optimist to Pessimist

Early in 1971, Hindess doubted that democracy can be developed in the conditions under which the
working class has been excluded from the democratic process and the 1969 British Labour Cabinet
contained no working-class members.23 In 1983, Hindess noted two kinds of democratic mechan
isms: (a) democratic appointments to membership of a legislative assembly; and (b) democratic
decision-making within the assembly. He goes on to say that the bulk of appointments and decisions
made by state apparatuses lie elsewhere.24 Democracy is always dependent on the conditions under
which it operates. Its consequences are never reducible to the organization of the democratic
mechanism itself. They can be just as easily attributed to some other mechanism, such as capitalism.
Nevertheless, Hindess cherished the idea of popular democratic forms. He had accepted the
dominance of parliamentary democracy and had even advocated the development of extraparlia
mentary organs to support the notion of popular democracy. He proposed a democratization program
in two areas: (a) improvements to parliamentary and electoral mechanisms themselves; and (b) the
development of nonparliamentary democratic mechanisms, such as a comprehensive Freedom of
Information Act.25
A mere six years later, however, he became so disillusioned that he no longer discussed practical
resolutions to democratic problems. Instead, he just focused on the conceptual weaknesses of
democracy and democratization, arguing in effect that what people call democracy is nothing more
than fairy liberalism or blatant individualism. The so-called "democratic trend" was for Hindess
problematic, if not fanciful.
Take as an example what John Dryzek calls the "deliberative turn." Theories of deliberative
democracy attempt to rediscover the ancient forum of democracy in which citizens engage in delib
eration over public policies. Dryzek explores a new democratic possibility by using deliberative
democracy as an alternative to conventional liberal democracy. Nevertheless, there are many good
reasons for Hindess to ignore this. For example, we can apply Hindess' critique of the nature of
democracy to the theory of deliberative democracy. While deliberative democracy has recovered the
traditional forum in which citizens engage a high level of deliberation on public policies, it still faces
a number of problems. Foremost, it remains equally difficult to achieve a self-governing community
of citizenship through deliberative democracy. Like any modern organization of liberal democracy,
deliberative democracy cannot handle the influencing forces beyond self-governing communities.
Deliberative forums like citizen juries, deliberative polling events, and twenty-first century town
meetings, are still all subject to administrative powers. While "selected" citizens engage in see
mingly "inclusive" deliberation behind closed doors, other nonparticipating citizens are inevitably
"excluded" or kept at a distance by the elite powers (those running the event) in order for the

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22 Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 36( I)

deliberation to function correctly. Clearly, this shows that

citizens is an illusion. Hindess asserts: "any modification
popular involvement in government—for example, throu
tion—should also be expected to involve new ways of ke

Discussion and Criticism

Intellectual Tools. Foreshadowing his disillusionment wit

already advocated, in 1982, that concepts of power and int
useful to explain the motivation and outcome of political
the conceptual problem of democracy in the 1990s, he h
likened the problems of democracy and democratization
pollution problem, people will continue to use cars. In mu
will still use the concept of democracy. At the same time
Christian discourse between the fourteenth and eighteen
nineteenth century, so the discourse of democracy will d
anachronistic concept.
In considering both Hindess' earlier work and more rece
aspects or dimensions that weaken his overall argument
nesses in the conceptualization of democracy and democ
tance of tools at the expense of dispensing practical app
themselves. We can never answer questions simply by deb
Conceptual analysis is not a good substitute for empirical,
issue with the way Hindess focuses his critique on the tools
production of alternative tools. If we discard all the old to
we are obviously in a bit of trouble.
Whether or not we have the appropriate tools, we have t
problems. In many ways the old adage "make do with wh
ply pick and sharpen the tools we have rather than fixate on
will ever come up with the perfect tool. Even though they
task at hand, our old, familiar, and worn-out-tools can at
finding practical solutions to problems naturally that we
Politics of Fictional Politics. In demonstrating the falla
does, however, point out the fictional politics involve
self-governing community of citizens is a stretch of the
exercise of power. Liberal governments are certainly no ex
Age appealed the idea of God, then we can quite rightly s
to fictional ideal of democracy for their political legitim
Exposing the fictional underlayers of democracy, Hind
only legitimate form of government is democratic. Hind
the latter as merely a technique of government and an exe
elaborate critiques.28
Nevertheless, the idea of democracy remains a powerful
one but one that continues to inspire people. Here, we com
mean. Conjuring up fictional utopias like true democrat
justify and highlight contradictory arrangements and dif
ative and a positive function, depending on how actors u
Utopian idea of democracy itself, as it is in those who ha
ultimately serve their own interests. Crucially, what we

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He 23

under which different social groups employ or manipulate Utopian ideas such as democracy. There is
certainly no harm in entertaining, reaching toward, or even approximating some democratic uto
pia—the "impossible dream." Forfeiting Utopian ideals for some realist alternative, I argue, should
never be a part of Hindess' agenda.
The issue is not whether democracy can be realized or not, but rather that such an idea equips us
with an intellectual capacity to transcend the limitations of the politics. Some Utopian elements or
ideals will no doubt remain just that, but holding them out there will at least enable us to renew our
sense of political purpose, drive, and direction even if we only use them to show up the ugly, dark, or
inhumane world. In short, Utopian or fictional ideas of democracy constitute a lasting cultural
resource on which different social groups can draw in a bid to make the world a better place for all.
The idea of democracy is appealing because it expresses a faith in the commonness of our human
ity; that is, the vast majority of citizens of the world wish to desire political communities that are
truly self-governing. But, we must keep in mind that many people who form government are easily
tempted by other agendas and misuse democracy as a veiled exercise. The confirmation, modifica
tion, or denial of democratic principles has been and will continue to be a perennial issue in dem
ocratic theories. In summary, Hindess regards the concept of democracy as an artifact. His quest has
been to remind us not to get caught up in the delusion that it's still alive and well, or that it ever has
been for that matter. The original ideals of democracy have been lost, buried, or hidden and we now
find ourselves in a serious crisis of democracy with no way out. Hindess' final words on democracy
paint for us a very dark picture indeed, that is, the tragedy of democracy: democracy will inevitably
breed disenchantment. But for all that we must aspire to democracy, we must take Hindess' pessi
mism on board. As Walter Benjamin claims, paradoxically, it is only because of those who are hope
less that hope is given to us.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interests with respect to the authorship and/or publication of
this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.


1. Dryzek, John, "Review of Barry Hindess' Book," Political Choice and Social Structure: An A
Actors, Interests and Rationality (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1989); in Public Choice 71 (1991)
2. As a gesture of good humor, in the 1990s he put a toy bomb on his own office desk.
3. See Rowse, Tim, "Debating the Categories of Remote Indigenous Society," in this special iss
4. Hindess, Barry, Parliamentary Democracy and Socialist Politics (London: Routledge and K
1983), 11.
5. Hindess, Barry, "Imaginary Presuppositions of Democracy," Economy and Society 20 (1991): 173-95.
6. See Archibugi, Daniele, and David Held, eds., Cosmopolitan Democracy: An Agenda for a New World
Order (Oxford: Polity Press, 1995).
7. Dahl, Robert, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), 15.
8. Hindess, Barry, "Democracy and Big government," in The Idea of Europe: Problems of National and
Transnational Identity, edited by Brian Nelson, David Roberts, and Walter Veit, 96-108 (New York,
NY: Berg, 1992).
9. Hindess, Barry, "Political Equality and Social Policy," Thesis Eleven (1990): 114—20.
10. Hindess, note 8, 98-100.
11. Hindess, note 8, 100-2.
12. Hindess, note 5, 177-9; note 9, 115-7.

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24 Alternatives: Global, Local, Politícal 36( I)

13. Hindess, note 5, 181-3.

14. Hindess, note 8, 98.
15. Hindess, note 4, 143.
16. Dahl, note 7, chap. 3; Hindess, note 8, 101^1.
17. Dahl, note 7, chap. 3; Hindess, note 8.
18. Hindess, note 8, 101.
19. Hindess, note 5, 184—7.
20. Hindess, Barry, "Democracy and Disenchantment," Aust

21. Hindess, note 5, 186.

22. Hindess, note 8, 101.
23. Hindess, Barry, The Decline of Working Class Politics (London: Granada, 1971).
24. Hindess, note 4, 54, 78.
25. Hindess, note 5, 80.
26. Hindess, Barry, "Democracy as Anti-Democracy," Southern Review 6 (2001): 14.
27. Hindess, Barry, "Power, Interests and the Outcomes of Struggles," Sociology 16 (1982): 495-511.
28. Hindess, Barry, "Not at Home in the Empire," Social Identity 7 (2001): 363-77; "The Liberal Government
of Unfreedom," Alternatives 26 (2001): 107; "Democracy and the Neo-Liberal Promotion of Arbitrary
Power," Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 3 (2000): 68-84.


Baogang He (ΒΑ, Hangzhou Uni, 1981; MA, People's University of China, Beijing, 1986; Ph.D,
ANU, Australia, 1993), is Chair in International Studies at the School of Politics and International
Studies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also an adjunct professor in Political Theory
at Tianjin Normal University in China. Professor He is the author of four single-authored books,
three edited books, and 50 international refereed journal articles. His research interests cover delib
erative democracy, Chinese democratization, Chinese politics, comparative politics, political theory,
Asian regionalism, and federalism in Asia.

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