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Centre for Democratic FuturesCentre Blog

Meet the authors: “The spirit of democracy”

Published: 24 April 2022

On June 21st 2021, Prof. Sofia Näsström published a book called “The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal”. In this book, Sofia asks “how does one revitalise democracy in times of crisis?” This book shows that while we have good reasons to worry about the corruption of democratic practices and ideals, these worries are often attributable to questionable assumptions about what democracy is. On April 24th, 2022, the Centre for Democratic Futures held a “meet the authors” event, in which we welcomed the author Sofia Näsström to present her book, along with three international experts to discuss it. The event was chaired by Prof. David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy within the School of Economic, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Southampton and member of the Steering Committee of the Centre for Democratic Futures.


In her opening statements, Sofia Näsström highlighted how political theorists define democracy by either focusing on the procedures for making decisions or on popular sovereignty. The argument she makes in her book is that democracy cannot be reduced to either of these definitions, because democracy is a spirit. She argued that each political form has its own spirit, drawing from Montesquieu’s work, and uses this conceptual framework to analyse our modern democracies. So, what is the spirit of democracy? According to Näsström, modern democracy is a political lifeform animated and sustained by a spirit of emancipation. In modern political thought, emancipation has two connotations, that of specific social groups emancipating themselves from oppression or that of humans coming of age, an enlightenment. But the democratic spirit of emancipation cannot be reduced to these definitions and has two clear characteristics, both of which Sofia summarised briefly. Firstly, in light of uncertainty, we the people tame this uncertainty by dividing it equally – it emancipates us from having the future decided for us. Secondly, the spirit of emancipation opens up the purpose of society to change, and it gives us the freedom to fail, and begin anew. However, the uncertainty of the current world is not split democratically between all people, and individuals can be picked upon and exploited, making class distinction as legitimate as in classical monarchies. Thus, uncertainty about the future can be a source of corruption but also a source of renewal. Her book attempts to shift democracy from sovereignty to spirit.


Prof. Jason Frank, John L. Senior Professor of Government at Cornell University, was the first discussant. He started by commenting on the main theoretical inspirations of Näsström’s book, mainly Montesquieu and Arendt, but particularly Rousseau as a “theoretical nemesis”. He noted that she turned to a central problem or paradox that Rousseau wrestled with, one known by different terms, like the boundary problem or the paradox of politics. Näsström writes that the paradox of politics leads to destructive destabilisation of democratic politics, but Frank wondered, among other questions, why she did not engage with other possibilities, different from destabilisation but linked to the emergence of new collectivities or forms of political identity. He finished by noting the broader questions the book poses, a challenge that must be taken on and confronted directly to accept the political responsibilities of our democratic crisis.


Dr. Mathias Koenig-Archibugi, Associate Professor of Global Politics in the Department of Government and the Department of International Relations of the London School of Economics and Political Science, highlighted how Sofia tried to get readers to think about democracy in different ways. He found insightful her discussion of migration when addressing the issue of citizenship, particularly how she pointed out the risks of immigration policies based on virtuous distinctions, such as the education level of the migrants. He also commented on Näsström’s discussion of the “moral approach” and reflected on ways to combine this conception with her emancipatory conception. Koenig-Archibugi imagined how Näsström could develop another chapter of book about global organisation and different ways of political organisation in the world, combining both approaches.


Finally, Prof. Nadia Urbinati, Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, highlighted that democracy is an unfinished business and appreciated Näsström’s statements that it is an unfinished process of self-emancipation. She shared several reflections. Firstly, she found going back to Montesquieu to give democracy a spirit a challenge, and she wondered how far Sofia was willing to follow Montesquieu. She strongly agreed with Näsström in her correlation of elections with lottery and her statements that whereas lottery is the human acceptance of chance, elections are the human control of the future. She shared she would like to know how Sofia thinks elections can animate the principle of emancipation.


In the Q&A session that followed, several interesting questions were raised by the audience. The concept of emancipation was contrasted with recent events like the presidential election of Donald Trump and the audience asked how emancipation can be pursued by non-informed citizens. Sofia Näsström answered that the sovereign people are not democratic by default, but it depends on their spirit. Answering other questions, she also shared her concerns on raising the bar for migrants to obtain citizenship and how we need new institutions to deal with this issue.

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