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Emergent Publics: An Essay on Social Movements and Democracy

by Ian Angus - Arbeiter Ring Publishing; 2003.
[Reviewed by Scott Schaffer]

It’s a rare thing when a significant social theorist steps out of the jargon-filled clouds and writes a book that is intended to be accessible to just about anyone. It’s even more rare that a book like that is genuinely successful. Yet Ian Angus has written precisely that book in his recent (2001) book, Emergent Publics: An Essay on Social Movements and Democracy.

A remarkably breezy and efficient book – the main text comes in at 86 pages, with another 15 pages of “further reading” suggestions with commentary – Emergent Publics takes on the notion that is often played out in American politics, namely the notion that all citizens are entitled to do in a democratic society is vote for candidates for office. Starting with the notion that a radical and direct democracy is a beneficial thing, and that the kinds of social movements at work in the early 21st century are gearing us up for that, Angus has constructed a text that easily and clearly lays out the relationship between social movements and democracy.

Angus opens the book simply, and humbly, enough; he wants readers to find enough in his work to “argue with me and to form their own conclusions.” And there is enough in this book to give readers just that. Angus provides a very simple and orderly examination of the nature of democracy, the place of social movements within that, and what he thinks the goals of those movements really have in common, namely the development of a participatory democracy, one in which the content of the participation matters more than the institutional arrangements of the process.

After laying out his vision of the book and his relationship with the reader (more conversation partner at a pub or movement meeting than expert in democracy), Angus begins the meat of the argument with an examination of what really goes into a democratic mode of governance. Highlighting the importance of the content first and foremost, Angus finds five core elements of a democratic social order: a public, unified by a common civic identity, engaging in self-governance by making informed decisions based on easily accessible information. In an amazingly light prose, Angus is able to simultaneously look at the conceptual definitions of these ideas, the history of their development and changes in their actual forms, and the relationship between them – all in a matter of 18 successfully constructed pages.

The next step in what really amounts to a primer on democratic theory for activists (hence its publication by Arbeiter Ring, one of the foremost activist presses in Canada) is an essential examination of the importance of an inclusive democracy. Following the proverbial “Plato to NATO” approach, Angus makes the argument that just because democracies in the past and present have excluded or do exclude certain populations from participation, we shouldn’t ditch the idea of a democracy. Here, Angus takes a utopian version of democracy – an ideal to constantly be worked toward – but argues against former versions of this in fascism, Communism, or neoliberalism, all of which Angus claims work toward imposing an exclusive common identity on the citizenry.

The issue of public sphere(s) is next on Angus’ agenda, and social movements are presented as a way to work against the closure of the public sphere diagnosed by Habermas, among many others. Angus argues that social movements, in addition to serving what he calls a diagnostic function (the existence of a social movement means there is some problem with the social order that needs to be fixed, and part of social movements’ work is to highlight these problems), also serve a crucial need for a democratic society – that of giving people a place to discuss, debate, and develop ideas of the just society. Social movements serve the purpose of expanding the number of people that can participate in a democratic society, thereby moving us forward to the goal of “rule by the people.”

The final chapter examines two cases – the feminist movements and the alternative technology movement – to highlight the ways in which these social movements have been able to expand participation, critique the old governing ideas and compel people to rethink the norms that govern political life. Angus also explores the ways in which the communities that are created through social movements become incorporated in and change the larger political community, highlighting the importance of community membership for the creation of a real democratic society.

Angus clamors for the importance of a respect for difference throughout Emergent Publics; he doesn’t want to bring back the notion that “the conflict inherent in political life could be resolved if only the right formula could be found.” Democracy for Angus isn’t about formulas; it’s about processes, actions, and intentions, and this is quite possibly the most important element of this book. Rather than providing a recipe for current social movements to gain power, Angus prefers a more ethically bounded, and ultimately a more inspirational, approach – to provide members of those social movements with the tools to develop their own recipes.

For such a compact book, Angus is amazingly able to address what full courses in democratic theory, social change, and political sociology are rarely able to address – the importance of creativity and individual and collective activity in the development of democracies. Because of this, I think that if there is one book that should be seen in the pockets of people in the streets, it is Emergent Publics.

Emergent Publics is available from Arbeiter Ring