Conflict and consensus are inseparable elements of democracy. In a democratic society, different groups and individuals compete for power and power struggle is a fundamental tendency in the democratic political life. Pluralism, which can be defined as the belief in the desirability and advantages of numerous different social groups (ethnic, religious groups, social classes etc.) interacting with each other and trying to shape government’s decisions, aims at allowing different groups competing for power and contributing to the decision-making process. Sometimes, the state can actively support or control these groups by establishing corporations and organizing or mobilizing different interests in the corporatist model. However, some politicians and scholars do not believe in the idea of pluralism and build their discourses, theories on the societal or national interest concept instead of competing different group interests. In the light of Robert Dahl’s “Pluralism Revisited” and Gabriel Almond’s “Corporatism, Pluralism, and Professional Memory” articles, in this piece, I would like to discuss some concepts of today’s democratic understanding such as pluralism, corporatism and conflict vs. consensus.
To begin with, as I stated before, power struggle is in the essence of democracy as Dahl explains; “The struggle of individuals and groups to gain autonomy in relation to the control of others is, like the efforts to acquire control over others, a fundamental tendency of political life” (Dahl, p. 191). Democracy means the rule of people and is implemented in the form of representative democracy by the votes of citizens to the representative candidates of their constituency or to the president directly. Even by giving votes, different individuals belonging to different social groups in a sense compete for each other to elect their favorite political party and candidate as the government or president of the country. These power struggles naturally create cleavages between different groups and organizations. However, another important aspect of democracy is that it gives much emphasis on the inviolable basic civil rights and liberties that cannot be changed by governments’ decisions. In addition, democracy requires the formation of coalition governments and compromise of different sides for a healthy regime. Thus, although there are numerous different struggles between groups, a consolidated democracy needs consensus. In other words, democracy tries to embrace all segments of society and thus, needs pluralism as an important part of its structure.
Pluralism in a sense completes democracy by creating and allowing different groups to compete for power and contribute to the decision-making process. Dahl underlines the difference between pluralism and strict bipolarity (Dahl, p. 192). Pluralism, unlike strict bipolarity, recognizes other side’s right to live and tries to provide the co-existence of both sides while allowing both sides’ right to pursue their own interests. Robert Dahl also points out that pluralism is not only a Western bourgeois concept but can be implemented even in communist regimes such as during the decentralized socialist Tito rule in Yugoslavia or in Chile. According to Dahl, contrary to the popular argument, class conflicts take place most in countries where there are no other important cleavages. He gives New Zealand and Finland as examples of this type of countries. In today’s societies, there are numerous cleavages including religious or sectarian differences, racial, ethnic, cultural or linguistic diversities. Social class difference is also one of the most basic sources of cleavage in democratic countries. For instance in Turkey in addition to struggle between bourgeois and proletariat classes, there are many other cleavages between Alevis and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds, secularists and religious extremists etc.
In defining pluralism independently from the type of the system, Dahl argues that both capitalist and socialist regimes can be pluralist or not and ownership is not enough for control. “For experience in this century has conclusively demonstrated that ownership is definitely not a sufficient condition for control” (Dahl, p. 194). Enterprises owned by proletariat class in socialist regimes can be pluralist like in the Yugoslavia example, if it allows workers to have a word in decisions concerning the working process of the enterprise. However, in capitalist regimes the system can be highly anti-pluralist if decisions are solely taken by the managerial cadre and unionist rights are not very well protected. Nazi Germany is a good example for pluralism lacking capitalist regimes where nearly all decisions are taken by the strong political order. Pluralism is not directly linked with the type of regime but rather with its ability of giving autonomy to different groups in itself. Like Dahl said, what is important is the autonomy of different groups and the degree of decentralization not solely the ownership of the means of production. Especially organizational pluralism has nothing to do with the type of the regime. Even a non-democratic country can be pluralistic in this perspective. In addition, most of the capitalist countries lack pluralism concerning the working of private enterprises.
Corporatism is another important application and principle used in democratic regimes. Corporatism refers to the emergence of state-sponsored, monopolistic legal associations for different groups in the society. Corporatism is mostly used for social classes and different professional groups however; it can be used for representing other social groups too. Gabriel Almond criticizes corporatist model for mobilizing people and groups under the state control and preventing them to follow their own interests freely. Corporatist model was used in the fascist Italy and revolutionary Mexico and has been preferred generally by more authoritarian regimes. Lehmbruch offers a historical-sociological classical for corporatism. In his idea, there are three basic types of corporatism; these are, “liberal corporatism (e.g. the kind of operating in the democratic industrial countries), statist corporatism (e.g. fascist, authoritarian, and clerico-authoritarian variety) and traditional corporatism (e.g. the guild systems of the medieval cities)” (Almond, p. 249). Nearly in all democracies, a mixture of corporatist and pluralist models has been used until today. Corporatist model theoretically can be very successful because it would allow all groups to pursue their own interests without violating other people and groups’ rights under the control of the state. However, the state may also use it as a way of mobilizing people and silencing the opposition like in the case of Mussolini’s Italy. Corporatism can be very useful if it aims at protecting citizens’ rights from the negative effects of unemployment.
All these discussions are mostly caused by the fundamental problem between common and particular interest clash. Common interest in its meaning seems like a very positive thing because it refers to the importance of the society’s interest as a whole. The term particular interest, unlike the term common interest, reminds of words like individualism, egoism and creates a negative image. However, when we look at the practice, we see that in the name of representing the common interest and thinking the benefit of society as a whole, some groups may enjoy the chance of following and realizing their particular interests freely by harming many other segments of the society. In my opinion, we can talk about common or national interest only if all groups of the society are in the favor of a particular thing. General will which came into the scene by the writings of famous French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, can cause serious problems for the society if it excludes some groups or represented by a body, person or institution that lacks legitimacy and support of the whole population. Especially in highly centralized regimes, an institution may begin to act in accordance with its own norms that have been evolved during its existence and may start to forget listening different groups’ wishes and criticisms.
Another fundamental problem in democracy is the struggle between centralization and decentralization. One can clearly assert that democracy, considering its emphasis given to autonomy of different groups, is in the favor of decentralization. Dahl defines decentralization as “to increase the autonomy of other subsystems in relation to the center” (Dahl, p. 202). Centralization, similar to the common interest, may cause a group to develop as ruling elite and increase inequalities in a society. “Thus a strategy of centralization that is initially justified as a way of reducing inequalities runs a serious risk of establishing a system that is not only based on a high degree of political inequality but in time due time facilitates the development of socially and economically privileged ruling elite as well” (Dahl, p. 203). Thus, decentralization, which would increase different groups’ participation to decisions, would increase the level of democracy in a country.
Finally, it must be noted that if democracy is the rule of people and people want to create some sub-groups to protect their particular rights, pluralist model should be adopted by all countries. By restricting rights of people and groups, regimes would have legitimacy and stability problems. If people’s rights are not properly represented, people would have a justifiable ground for not recognizing the authority of the state and problems would occur in countries. However, pluralism and democracy should not be understood as enjoying an unlimited freedom and having right to suppress some other groups. In developing countries as well as in countries where there are many types of cleavages, decentralization and pluralism may cause serious problems and may risk the very existence of the state. That is why; democratization should take place gradually by reforms in developing countries in accordance with a long and well-planned program.
Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ
- Dahl, Robert (1978), “Pluralism Revisited”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 10, No: 2, January 1978, Available at: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/421645?uid=3739192&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104094378367.
- Almond, Gabriel (1983), “Corporatism, Pluralism, and Professional Memory”, World Politics, Vol. 35, No: 2, January 1983, Available at: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2010272?uid=3739192&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104094378367.