Ways of searching for the common good

On the critical trajectory of deliberative democracy and the political meaning of deliberative forums

 Luigi Pellizzoni (University of Trieste)

The following text is a development of the main topics addressed during the communication given by Luigi Pellizzoni for the Seminar : De l’alerte au conflit – Logiques argumentatives et trajectoires des mobilisations (EHESS Friday 3 February 2012)]


One of the most significant political phenomena of the last decades is the flourishing of deliberative forums: structured arenas where different categories of people (‘lay’ citizens, experts, stakeholders, public administrators) meet to dialogically address a ‘problem’, more or less loosely defined as common. Such problems may range from major national issues like the adoption of a currency or the handling of emerging technologies to local policy questions like urban traffic or the siting of industrial facilities.

Countries of different political and administrative traditions are confronted with an increasing recourse to this type of processes. Theoretical debates and empirical analyses have intensified correspondingly, and the bulk of literature is becoming impressive. In this context, it is useful to reflect on what may be depicted as a sort of parabolic trajectory in the reading of this phenomenon.

TV campaign on Italian nuclear forum


Actually, the different purposes or concrete effects of deliberative forums have long been debated. To provide just an example, Sintomer and Allegretti (2009) talk of three different types of goals for deliberative experiences in Europe: managerial (improving public policies and modernizing administration by means of the involvement of citizens), social (strengthening cohesion, including minorities and disadvantaged groups, empowering the weakest categories), and political (re-legitimating the political system, expanding participation by means of new public spaces). This argument implies that such different aims, with their related frameworks (the ‘new public management’ in the first case, social justice in the second, participatory democracy in the third) live side by side, as options available to organized interests and institutions according to their needs and preferences.

The idea of a trajectory, on the contrary, suggests a basic shift in the way the meaning and rationale of deliberative forums is accounted for. We can talk of an ascending trait to the extent that, up to some point, discussions and criticisms can be strong but do not bring into question the fundamentally benign nature and implications of deliberative democracy. In the last years, however, a different, more corrosive type of analyses has been emerging, signalling a major change in the reading of the phenomenon.

The ascending trait of the trajectory

In the ascending trait of the trajectory, as said, deliberative forums are understood as a benign reply to the crisis of representative democracy and the administrative state – benign in the sense that it offers the opportunity for a (re-)intensification of people’s involvement in, and weight on, policymaking vis-à-vis the inefficiency of traditional institutions and approaches in dealing with new types of problems and major social transformations, which find their primary source in technoscience advancement, environmental change and economic globalization. Let us briefly elaborate on this.

The origins of the discourse of deliberative democracy are complex, but, as hinted, can be connected to the claimed ‘crisis of legitimacy’ or ‘crisis of overload’ (a term which refers to a problem of effectiveness and efficacy, rather than legitimacy, or to legitimacy as effectiveness) of democracy after decades of success and expansion. A crisis that includes the Welfare state (fiscal crisis) and the Fordist economy and neo-corporatist social relationships (raise of post-Fordism). In this picture, between the late 1970s and the 1980s, a number of authors (initially mostly political theorists, then increasingly political scientists, policy analysts and sociologists) begins to elaborate on a varied heritage of ideas, with special reference to Critical Theory (Germany) and to federalism, republicanism and pragmatism (North America and also France in the latter case). Later, a ‘Southern’ approach to deliberative democracy (Latin America) will appear, more connected with post-colonial discourses.

All these perspectives share a commitment to an ‘active engagement’ of citizens, as an antidote to the decline of participation and of policy legitimacy and quality. Despite discussions on the extent to which, and with what consequences for the existing institutional set-up, deliberative democracy has to be properly institutionalized (Habermas is famously against it), theoretical debates, formal modelling and practical experiences focus on ‘deliberative forums’, that is clearly identifiable (physical and/or virtual) frames where people directly meet, being aware they are taking part in a particular discursive game entailing specific (though not necessarily fixed) roles, on the assumption that:

  • a) to be fruitful, discussion needs to be purposefully organized;
  • b) deliberative arenas are suitable to both ‘big/general/principled’ issues and ‘local/specific/decisional’ issues;
  • c) deliberative forums do not replace representative democracy, yet they are more than just the ‘public sphere’, precisely for their designed, ‘governed’ character;
  • d) they are especially needed in front of intractable or wicked problems and of widespread institutional mistrust and profound divides of principles or interest;
  • e) they may increase the level of civicness as well as the effectiveness and quality of policy decisions.

This view leads, between the 1990s and 2000s, to an increasing theoretical and operational focus on a series of problems. The goal is to understand the functioning of real discussions and to single out rules aimed at specific purposes, defined by taking a normative idea of deliberation as a reference point – albeit not necessarily the same for everyone. A divide actually appears between those approaches which understand deliberative processes as a means to build and express in a ‘better’, more ‘reflective’, way the public opinion, and those which understand them as a means to perform public inquiries into collective problems (Pellizzoni 2007). A divide that is most evident in the diverging account of what represents a sound choice of the participants (random selection vs. ‘reasoned’ choice among the parties involved in an issue). A number of deliberative models are developed and tested, followed by attempts to systematize the expanding range of approaches and experiences (cf. e.g. Rowe and Frewer 2000; Gastil and Levine 2005). An impressive array of contributions concern the conceptual and empirical limits of the idea of public reason vis-à-vis preference change, group dynamics, will manipulation, collective choice. Mainstream political science inspired by rational choice approaches is especially effective in this critical assessment, which however does not imply a thorough rejection but rather a plea for realism in the implementation and interpretation of deliberative democracy (cf. e.g. Dryzek and List 2003; Parkinson 2006; Mansbridge et al. 2010). In short, theoretical discussions and empirical explorations seek to clarify what actually happens in public deliberations and the practical implications of design choices as regards participant identification and selection, expert recruitment and advice, issue definition and agenda setting, task specification and discursive interaction.

A major field of inquiry and experimentation is offered by environmental and techno-scientific controversies, their peculiar challenges (from the relevance of scientific expertise and related public mistrust to the transversal character of the issues vis-à-vis established political cleavages, from the diverging views among scientists, corporate actors and affected people on the treatment of uncertainty to the growing salience of oppositional groups’ ‘counter-expertise’) making them almost paradigmatic of what the literature often refers to as ‘intractable problems’. The basic question, here and elsewhere, remains how deliberative settings actually work and how they may be led to get as close as possible to the deliberative principles. Emblematic of this approach is the attempt of the Swiss deliberative school (Steiner et al. 2004) to develop a proper index of the quality of deliberation, understood as quality of the discursive interaction within a forum, taking the Habermasian discourse principles as a normative benchmark.

The policy outcomes of deliberative processes represent another area of growing interest. The question here is not so much how deliberation works – the constitution and internal functioning of deliberative settings – but how deliberative democracy fits into, and the effects it produces onto, the broader policy process. The scholars engaged in this endeavour are often political scientists or sociologists working in the expanding field of discursive and cognitive policy analysis or, more broadly, dealing with the transformation of public administration instruments and procedures (cf. e.g. Hajer and Wagenaar 2003; Papadopoulos and Warin 2007). Research shows on the one side a growing recourse to multipurpose forms of public deliberation (information gathering, consensus building, stakeholder bargaining, problem solving etc.) in an increasingly messy policy environment where command-and-control regulation and financial instruments lose grip; on the other side, an intrinsic tension between new deliberative devices and traditional representative and administrative institutions, with a generally weak tie between public deliberation and actual decision-making. Measuring the ‘quality of deliberation’ here proves much more difficult, since the policy outcomes of a process may depend on a variety of factors, many of which are difficult to account for in a consistent way. A most recent expression of this area of issues is the discussion over the notion of ‘deliberative systems’ developed by Parkinson, Mansbridge and others (cf. Parkinson and Mansbridge 2012)1.

Against private finance pressure on public sphere

The descending trait of the trajectory

To sum up, we can talk of a long ascending trajectory of deliberative democracy for at least two orders of factors:

  • a) a growing number of theoretical reflections, empirical inquiries and practical uses of deliberative forums at different scales and on a broadening range of issues, together with forms of institutionalization such as the French 1995 law on the débat public and the Italian Tuscany Region 2007 law on participation, or the practices of consultation to which the European Union has long been committed;
  • b) as a consequence of the above, a growing awareness of the problems of public deliberation leading to a sensible refinement of analytical and operational skills, where the critical outlook strengthens both in its intensions (‘discourse quality index’ and similar efforts) and extension (‘deliberative systems’ and similar analyses) without questioning the fundamentally benign nature of deliberative democracy.

In short, in a good deal of the debate till now, growing insight into the promises and perils of public deliberation does not mean bringing in discussion its whole rationale and import. Despite drawbacks and possible misuses, deliberative forums keep their advantages, which essentially consist in creating those conditions for the reconciliation of value pluralism through the establishment of justificatory equivalences (in the lexicon of Boltanski and Thévenot) which are increasingly hard to find within the institutions of representative democracy and the dynamics of public administration.

Cracks in this basically positive picture begin to appear, in the last years, in two points. First, some discussions focus on the implications of deliberative forums for politics (rather than policy). The emerging discourse about ‘deliberative systems’ partly intercepts this problematic. What is important to stress, however, is a perceptible shift in some works from a focus on the institutional set up to a focus on the political conflict. For example, analysing two Electronic Town Meetings in Tuscany, Freschi and Mete (2009) argue that the realization of deliberative settings and, beyond them, the regulation of participation, have direct and strong political implications: the local left-wing political elite tried in this way to control and channel the discontent of its own constituency (participants were mostly gathered from the left-wing electorate). Topics, agendas, rules and tasks were used as a means to play down major political questions and discords, the town meetings being portrayed as novel, fair opportunities of participation to a problem-solving activity on unproblematically defined issues. The left-wing regional government, in other words, found in deliberative democracy not a way to renew political relationships but to strengthen a political elite committed first of all to reproduce itself and to negotiate directly with organized interests.

If this interpretation of the specific cases can be (and has been) criticized, the question raised is hardly irrelevant. Yet a second fissure emerges when one looks at the expansion of deliberative democracy in the broader context of governance – provided that this concept is problematized in its normative implications, rather than taken as a merely descriptive notion. That deliberative forums are part and parcel of the ‘new governance’ is in a sense obvious. There is much more than a chronological coincidence between the raise of deliberative democracy and the raise of governance. If the latter consists in a transfer of power from state to non-state actors, from single actors to networks, from law to market and quasi-market mechanisms, from a democracy of representation to a democracy of efficiency, in an attempt to handle the growing complexity of a globalized, post-Fordist, post-Berlin wall, fast-technologically advancing society by hollowing out the lexicon of conflict in favour of a lexicon of stakeholder interests, then deliberative forums, with their aspiration to consensus building among concerned parties on a rational solution to a common problem, includes most, if not all, the tropes of governance. The European Union’s policy documents, for example the White Paper on Governance of 2001, express in the most evident way the simultaneous proceeding of governance and deliberative discourses and practices.

This connection between deliberative democracy and governance – their family resemblance, or the inclusion of the former in the latter – has been acknowledged in a mostly uncritical way by the (major) part of the literature which adopts a descriptive use of the notion of governance. It is only quite recently that the picture has become to take a different shade. The point of attack is a critique of the rhetoric of governance conducted according to completely different readings of the same phenomena. The key concept here is that of ‘governmentality’, coined by the late Foucault (cf. e.g. Foucault 1991) in his attempt to make sense of profound transformations in the forms of power that, begun in the late XVIII century with the constitution of the liberal state, have reached their apex today with the spread of neoliberal theories, programs and policies. Foucault could see very little of what followed the Reagan and Thatcher reforms, but his amazing foresight and the passionate development of his intuitions by a growing scholarship working initially in the English-speaking context, then in Germany and more recently in France and Italy (cf. for an updated discussion Bröckling et al. 2011), offer the grounds for a thorough rethinking of the political meaning of deliberation. I do not maintain that all such rethinking adopts the analytics of governmentality, but my impression is that even those contributions that make no reference to the latter, as some recent examples in the STS literature (cf. e.g. Irwin 2006; Felt and Fochler 2010), follow lines of criticism that could be easily made to fit into this framework. At least: if a full picture of deliberative democracy entails considering the ‘governance’ context in which it has developed, then a radical critique – what I call here the descending trajectory – entails adopting a comparably encompassing outlook, of the sort that the analytics of governmentality may offer.

No doubt, this descending trajectory is fragmentary and still represents a minor (and often fiercely contested) part of the debate, yet my perception is that its salience is increasing. The basic difference with the types of criticisms belonging to the ascending trajectory is that in this case the detected problems have less to do with the (in)effectiveness of concrete forums in approximating the normative ideal of deliberation or the possible imbalances with the institutions of representative democracy, and more with the actual import of such experiences and their underlying assumptions in the present socio-political condition. The alleged people’s ‘empowerment’ and increase in policy quality are gauged against opposite results, with special reference to issue depoliticization, the power effects of science and the individuals’ indirect government through dialogue, ethics and responsibilization. Let us elaborate briefly on this view.

Four tenets of the governmentality perspective are especially relevant here. First, power is not a force exerted in opposition to people’s will and that can be more or less distributed, as the governance literature maintains, but a way to shape and orient their free action, to conduct their conduct, which may crystallize in states of domination. Second, government is a set of activities that express specific mentalities or forms of reasoning around problems of rule. Third, the emergence of these mentalities or rationalities is less a matter of revolutionary changes than of the ‘intensification’ of existing patterns and ideas: ‘the lightening, saturation, becoming-more-efficient, and transversal linkage of existing practices […] [up to] tipping points […] where the object or subject mutates into another form’ (Nealon 2008: 38-39). Fourth, present forms of government are dominated by the neoliberal rationality, which is focused on expanding anywhere, at individual and collective level, the logic of market and entrepreneurship, by appropriately regulating social relationships in terms of strategic planning of competition (Pellizzoni and Ylönen 2012). In this way the governmentality perspective offers a quite different picture of the current state of affairs. ‘Governance’ is anything but a spontaneous process, and anything but a decentring of state and elite power. It is rather a reworking of power relationships according to precise strategies and rationales. Sovereign law and related institutions, with connected traditional conflicts, recede to the backstage (without disappearing at all: police and the army are always available, if necessary), while a regulation mainly focused on ‘governmental’ means – that is, a regulation based on indirect, ‘economic’ forms of guidance of the free conduct of people, according to their own tendencies and interests, steering clear as much as possible of conflicts and antagonisms – gets to the forefront. If governance is not ‘an instance of transfer of power from the state to nonstate actors [but] an expression of a changing logic or rationality of government’ (Sending and Neumann 2006: 652), then it is according to this changing logic that one is to gauge the meaning and import of deliberative forums.

Actually, despite deliberative democracy has been advocated as an antithesis to rational choice politics and ‘public management’ policies, it is hard to deny that managerial-technocratic policy styles have made large recourse to public deliberation at different scales, from EU regulation to urban planning (cf. e.g. Newman 2005; Sintomer and De Maillard 2007). This is what Sintomer and Allegretti, as we have seen, acknowledge. Yet it is the inner tension between the managerial and the social justice and political equality goals that is to be stressed, despite – or perhaps precisely because of – a generalized appeal to ‘citizen empowerment’ and a growing understanding of policy-making as problem-solving. As a matter of fact, deliberative arenas begin to spread in the 1990s, that is precisely at the moment when neoliberalization enters its ‘roll-out’ phase (Tickell and Peck 2003), with a series of measures aimed at countering the dramatic socio-economic consequences of deregulation, marketization and the dismantling of the Keynesian state. Seen in this light, thus, deliberative forums can be less a way to resist the neoliberal drift than a driver of the latter.

Penso mas não existo - cogito sed non sum

The connection between governance and deliberative democracy is therefore more problematic than usually seen. Moreover, the governmentality approach puts well-known aspects of public deliberation in a different perspective, raising a number of questions. For example: is specifying the elements for a constructive discussion – from a definite task to ‘appropriate’ rules and a suitable number of  the ‘right’ participants – just a technical matter of efficiency to be solved in terms of handbooks and skills, or is it first of all a political act of inclusion and exclusion? That deliberative processes are framed according to a dominant ‘stakeholder’ language, with ‘the general public or the community portrayed as one of a number of stakeholders in some sense entitled to be party to the dialogue’ (Goven 2006: 104), is just an implication of the present fragmented state of society or is it a way to rework social relationship according to this assumption, pre-empting any question that involves the idea of a political community and of major lines of division in terms of power and interests? Can participants be gathered as ‘proxies’ for the general public and tasked with reflecting on the best (or a viable) solution to strongly bounded ‘problems’ without leading to a guided image-crafting of what the public is and what its interests and concerns are? Are citizens empowered in such a way that they are simultaneously deprived of the possibility to voice (and, before this, to conceive) specific types of questions? Can a sort of judicial assessment aimed at impartially defining the interest of all replace proper political judgements aimed at defining the general interest – which means making some interests prevail over others, albeit in a publicly justified manner (cf. Urbinati 2010)? That it is first and foremost in the ‘internal forum’ (Goodin 2000) that deliberation is assumed to lie by the prevailing accounts and models – it would ultimately consist of a mental process of clarification about facts and values in view of their harmonization for the common good, and with balanced information and appropriate rules of talk protecting from undue influences – is just a matter of the logic of democracy, as grounded on the unconstrained will formation of the citizens, or does it strengthen the grip of indirect forms of guidance of people conceived as self-responsible and self-reflective yet fundamentally isolated individuals? Is, in this sense, the growing relevance of ethics as a regulatory device at individual and collective level an indicator of growing reflectivity, awareness and responsibilization or of growing diversion of the public attention from proper political issues of power and resource, of risk and benefit distribution? Can the spread of deliberative forums be regarded as a way to handle the increasing complexity of the social environment in a thoroughly democratic way? Or should one consider it as a major driver of ‘post-politics’, understood as the hollowing out of the authentic political dimension of life in common, that is the antagonism between social forces that recognize each other while attempting to affirm and universalize their own particular demands (cf. e.g. Rancière 1998; Mouffe 2005) – a post-politics that assumes the ‘inevitability of capitalism and a market economy as the basic organizational structure of the social and economic order, for which there is no alternative’ (Swyngedouw 2010: 215), and therefore that at stake with such problems as the economic crisis, terrorism or climate change are the interests of all and everyone, beyond differences and inequalities? Is the centrality of technical expertise in deliberative forums just implied in the growing technicality of issues and the focus of deliberation on the rational confrontation of arguments, or is it part and parcel of a growing scientization of politics, by which ‘sound science’ transcends values and interests providing objective answers to policy problems on which all parties can agree (Moore et al. 2011); by which, above all, a regime of truth is established that even contesting parties are compelled to accept, channelling their dissent within specific boundaries and on a specific plane (Pellizzoni 2011a; Pellizzoni and Ylönen 2012)?


This sort of questions are springing out of recent literature, be it focused on deliberative forums or on the broader context of current ‘governance’, yet they are far from depicting an ordered list of issues. Clearly, the task is not so much to dismiss or discard all ideas and forms of public deliberation, as they have emerged and developed in these decades, but to raise more challenging questions than those found in mainstream debates. Questions that concern the actual meaning and import of deliberative democracy vis-à-vis its alleged ‘emancipatory’ capacity, its supposed ability to renew and strengthen democracy.

It is especially important, in this respect, to realize that there is no analytical framework exempt from problems and weaknesses. I have argued elsewhere (Pellizzoni 2011b; Pellizzoni and Ylönen 2012) about some difficulties of  the ecological/reflexive modernization literature and of post-structuralist approaches, which include much of the STS literature but also post-Marxist readings and the Foucauldian framework itself, vis-à-vis neoliberal governmentality. Yet significant criticisms can be addressed also to other types of approach, for example the sociology of critical capacity of Boltanski and Thévenot, as regards its difficulty in accounting for radical, foundational opposition. According to this reading (cf. Blokker and Brighenti 2011), a focus on the articulation, clash and reconciliation (within and outside deliberative forums) of regimes of worth may leave largely unaddressed the question of their broader framework – the regime of truth, one could say in Foucauldian terms, which dictates what are the reasonable and the unreasonable divergences – with consequent dismissal of more radical critiques, which do not address everyday disputes over ‘worth’ and ‘equivalence’ within the polity, but constitutive issues about the polity itself, about the ways of living in common.

Indeed, following the line of reasoning I have proposed here, one might say that, without finding a way to account for the unaccountable – to talk of something that lies outside the narrative and lexicon of the talk itself – a sociology committed to the disputes as detectable in the public sphere at a certain moment can find itself perfectly aligned with a governmental rationality; and this not because it adopts a ‘sovereign’ logic of allocation of worth, but precisely because it does not take side, following an approach the logic of which is managerial, ‘economic’, adhesive to the pragmatic reality of things as crafted by the circumstances.

Elaborating on these last remarks – for example by addressing recent developments in the sociology of critical capacity (Boltanski 2011) –  is beyond the scope of this contribution. Let me just conclude by saying the obvious: a new, intellectually and concretely challenging phase is in front of social science scholarship as regards the transformation of democracy and political life, and this invites all of us to sharpen and refine as much as possible our critical equipment.


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Pellizzoni, L. and M. Ylönen. 2012. Hegemonic contingencies: neoliberalized technoscience and neorationality. in Neoliberalism and Technoscience. Critical Assessments, edited by L. Pellizzoni and M. Ylönen. Farnham: Ashgate (in press).

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Swyngedouw, E. 2010. Apocalypse forever? Post-political populism and the spectre of climate change. Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3), 213-232.

Tickell, A. and J. Peck. 2003. Making global rules: globalization or neoliberalization?, in Remaking the Global Economy, edited by J. Peck and H.W. Yeung. London: Sage, 163-181.

Urbinati, N. 2010. Unpolitical democracy. Political Theory, 38(1), 65-92.


  1. At the moment I write the book has not yet been published, however parts have been circulating for a while. I refer here especially to the contribution of Mansbridge, Parkinson et others on ‘A systemic approach to deliberative democracy’ []

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