by William Smith
Deliberative democracy has arguably become the dominant—perhaps even hegemonic—paradigm within contemporary democratic theory. The family of views associated with it converge on the core idea that democratic decisions should be the outcome of an inclusive and respectful process of public discussion among equals. The paradigm has evolved considerably over the previous decades, with an initial emphasis on the philosophical contours of public reason gradually morphing into a more empirical analysis of democratic deliberation within a range of institutional and non-institutional settings.
The ideological assumptions underlying deliberative democracy have surprisingly not received much attention, either within the field of ideology studies or political theory. It is a mistake to approach deliberative democracy as an ideology in its own right, but the normative aspirations and empirical assumptions of its orthodox iterations are clearly informed by liberalism and social democracy. It takes from liberalism the idea of citizens as autonomous agents that are capable of engaging in a mutual exchange of reasons with their peers. It takes from social democracy a progressive aspiration to refashion, though ultimately not abolish, the institutional architecture of an ailing representative system.
This ideological fusion can be seen, at least in part, as a reaction to the rise of new social movements and the resurgence of interest in civil society that accompanied the end of the Cold War. The deliberative paradigm emerged as an attempt on the part of thinkers such as Joshua Cohen, James Bohman, Seyla Benhabib, and—most influentially—Jürgen Habermas to steer liberalism in a more radical democratic direction, while insisting that emancipatory political projects must commit to the system of rights that underpin liberal constitutional orders.
The relative lack of attention to the ideological moorings of deliberative democracy is unfortunate for at least two reasons. First, it diminishes our understanding of the rivalry between the deliberative approach and alternative theories of democracy. It is, for instance, difficult to fully grasp what is at stake in the debates between deliberative democrats and their agonistic, participatory or realist interlocutors without appreciating their underlying ideological differences. Deliberative opposition to a resurgent conservatism and the far right should also be understood as a manifestation of its ideological commitments, rather than a mere expression of technocratic distaste for anti-rationalist populism.
Second, it clouds our view of the extent to which deliberative democracy is itself a site of ideological contestation. This is, at least in part, an upshot of internal tensions. The liberal influence on deliberative democracy heightens its concern for preserving order in the face of disagreement and conflict, such that achieving an accommodation between opposing societal perspectives is thought to take priority over the achievement of substantive political reforms. The more overtly leftist and emancipatory social-democratic influence is a countervailing force, which motivates criticism of the status quo and support for political change notwithstanding the risk that this may exacerbate political divisions.
There is, though, another process of ideological contestation at work. This process is revealed when we turn our gaze away from, as it were, the ‘centre’ of the deliberative paradigm, toward developments at its ‘periphery’.
There have, in recent years, been numerous attempts to implement recognisably deliberative practices within settings that are radically different to liberal democratic regimes. The most striking, in many respects, are the experiments with deliberative mechanisms in regions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Officials have periodically experimented with custom-made deliberative forums, as well as importing mini-public designs pioneered elsewhere. The ideological underpinnings of these developments are difficult to map, though the influence of the prevailing doctrines of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and ideas that can be associated with certain interpretations of Confucianism are evident. Baogang He and Mark Warren draw a connection between the use of deliberative forums in the PRC and a practice of consultation and elite discussion that has ‘deep roots within Chinese political culture’. They describe these experiments as instances of ‘authoritarian deliberation’, which is in turn presented as the core feature of a ‘deliberative authoritarianism’ that might serve as a potential pathway for political reform in the PRC.
The radical protest movements of the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries have also emerged as unexpected but notable sites of deliberation. The democratic practices of these movements have evolved through an iterated process of experimentation, spanning, among others, the women’s liberation movement, the New Hampshire Clamshell Alliance, the Abalone Alliance, ACT UP, Earth First!, the global justice movement, and the transnational wave of ‘Occupy’ movements. These movements are ideologically heterogenous, but anarchism is a particularly prominent influence on their politics, cultures, and internal practices. I contend that we can analyse these practices as a kind of ‘anarchist deliberation’, which corresponds to the emergence of ‘deliberative anarchism’ as a process of political mobilisation among decentred and autonomous movements.
There may be some reticence in referring to ‘deliberation’ in these authoritarian and activist contexts, rather than similar but distinct concepts like ‘consultation’ or ‘participation’. The concept is nonetheless salient, as the practices under consideration are constituted by the adoption of a ‘deliberative stance’ on the part of participants. This stance, as defined by David Owen and Graham Smith, requires agents to enter ‘a relation to others as equals engaged in mutual exchange of reasons oriented as if to reaching a shared practical judgement’. The adoption of deliberative practices in various institutional or cultural settings is shaped, at least in part, through the various ways in which this core deliberative norm can be refracted through contrasting ideological prisms. In authoritarian deliberation, for instance, the egalitarian logic of deliberation is strictly limited to the internal relations of forum participants, against a systemic backdrop characterised by highly inegalitarian concentrations of power.
Anarchist deliberation, by contrast, is an intersubjective practice among activists that is shaped by the core ideological values of anti-hierarchy, prefiguration, and freedom. These values underpin a communicative process that is premised upon horizontal relations among participants recognised as equals, within autonomous spaces that emerge more-or-less spontaneously in the course of political mobilisation or mutual aid. These dialogic and expressive processes are instantiated within the networked organisational forms that have become synonymous with anarchist-influenced movements. Consensus decision-making is adopted within affinity group and spokes-councils as a means of both reaching decisions in the absence of hierarchy and prefiguring alternatives to the majoritarian procedures favored by parliamentary bodies. The consensus process is favoured because it is thought to amplify the voice of participants in various ways, allowing for the inclusion of diverse forms of expression against the backdrop of supportive activist cultures and shared political traditions.
The deliberative process performs important functional roles in political environments where alternative coordination mechanisms are prohibited by ideological commitments. Authoritarian deliberation, for example, facilitates the expression and transmission of public opinion to elites in circumstances where open debate and multi-party elections are not permitted. Anarchist deliberation, by contrast, enables heterogenous protest movements to arrive at collective decisions about goals and tactics in the avowed absence of centralised or top-down power structures. The General Assembly (GA) in Occupy Wall Street (OWS), for instance, at least initially performed the functional role of allowing participants to clarify shared values, agree on processes, decide upon actions and discuss whether the movement should adopt ‘demands’. The debates that occurred in the GA evolved into something of existential import for the movement, in that it was in and through the substance and symbolism of these large scale procedures that OWS forged a collective identity.
The ideological underpinnings of deliberative practices inform their character and complexion, as well as attempts to ensure their operational integrity. Authoritarian deliberation, as the name suggests, is characterised by extensive control of issues and agendas by political elites, albeit with scope for citizen participation in selecting from a range of predetermined policy options. Anarchist deliberation, as one would expect, is characterised by extensive participant control over agendas and debates, though there are a range of informal cultural norms that aim to ensure the fairness and transparency of the process. These norms are typically seen as more flexible and organic than the more formal rules that lend structure to deliberation within mini-publics in authoritarian or democratic contexts.
A recurring and much-discussed problem is nonetheless the emergence of informal networks of power and influence among activists, which tends to prompt much soul searching about whether more formalised rules or procedures should be adopted. David Graeber documents a particularly fraught meeting of Direct Action Network activists, where deep ideological divisions emerged over an apparently innocuous proposal to tackle gender inequalities in their ranks through the use of a ‘vibes watcher’ or ‘third facilitator’. These debates, he argues, may seem incomprehensible to outsiders, but are a matter of great significance to activists intent upon taming the corrosive influence of power while preserving the ideological integrity and ties of solidarity that underpin their political association.
The deliberative practices that emerge in authoritarian regimes and activist enclaves are treated as curiosities by deliberative democrats, but not as matters of primary concern. This is, for the most part, because neither authoritarian deliberation nor anarchist deliberation exhibits any sort of connection to democracy as it is understood within mainstream deliberative theorising.
The extent to which ideas and practices associated with deliberative democracy can be adapted within authoritarian regimes and radical activist networks nonetheless demonstrates the ideological fluidity of the broader paradigm. It is, in fact, possible to place the deliberative views discussed here on an informal spectrum. Each view affirms deliberation as an optimum means of generating collective opinions or arriving at collective decisions, though each takes its bearings from contrasting assumptions:
This spectrum captures the contrasting ideological influences shaping deliberative practices across diverse political and cultural contexts, enabling us to tease out interesting similarities and differences. Deliberative authoritarianism and deliberative democracy, for instance, converge in treating deliberation as a discursive practice that should exert a positive influence on state institutions at local or national levels, albeit with diametrically opposed visions of how state power should be constituted. Deliberative anarchism, by contrast, tends to resist any association with authoritarian or liberal democratic institutions, adopting an antagonistic and insurrectionary orientation toward state and non-state sources of hierarchy.
There are, to be sure, profound challenges confronting each of these perspectives, such that there must be at least some doubt about their future prospects. Deliberative authoritarianism, for instance, appears to be far less viable as a developmental pathway for the PRC in light of the recent tightening of political controls under the premiership of Xi Jinping. Deliberative democracy retains considerable hold over the imaginations of democratic theorists, but it is not clear whether and how it can shape democratic practices in an era of post-truth politics and increasing polarisation. Deliberative anarchism, for its part, may suffer from an ongoing fall-out from the various movements of the squares, which has seen intensifying criticism of a perceived tendency among radical activists to fetishise process over outcomes.
There are, notwithstanding these challenges, at least two lessons that we can take from setting out this informal spectrum of deliberative positions. First, it illustrates the reach and appeal of deliberation across contrasting political traditions. In other words, the basic idea of deliberation as a means of including persons in a common enterprise, pooling their experiences and perspectives, and arriving at collective views or decisions appears to cohere surprisingly well with a broad range of political ideologies and frameworks. This should temper superficial critiques of deliberation that casually dismiss it as a creature of liberal political morality.
Second—and I think more significantly—it reveals the contingency and contestability of the ideological basis of deliberative democracy in progressivist liberalism and social democracy. Deliberative authoritarianism and deliberative anarchism may not, in the end, pose an enduring challenge to mainstream interpretations of deliberative democracy, but their emergence nonetheless demonstrates that alternative iterations of its core ideas are possible. This should again give pause to those who are too quick to criticise the paradigm as inherently wedded to a broadly reformist or even quietist outlook. It should also, conversely, guard against political complacency on the part of its adherents, standing as a permanent reminder that tethering the idea of public deliberation to the political and institutional horizons of the present is neither necessary nor—perhaps—desirable.
 A. Bächtiger, J. S. Dryzek, J. Mansbridge, and M. Warren (Eds), The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
 M. Freeden, The Political Theory of Political Thinking: The Anatomy of a Practice, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 219-222.
 M. A. Neblo, Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 36.
 J. Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. W. Rehg, (Cambridge: Polity, 1996).
 W. Smith, ‘Deliberation Without Democracy? Reflections, on Habermas, Mini-Publics and China’, in T. Bailey (Ed.), Deprovincializing Habermas: Global Perspectives (New Delhi: Routledge, 2013), pp. 96-114.
 B. He and M. Warren, ‘Authoritarian Deliberation: The Deliberative Turn in Chinese Political Development’, Perspectives on Politics, 9 (2011), pp. 269-289. He and Warren discuss numerous examples of deliberative consultation at local or regional levels in the PRC, such as the use of deliberative polling to establish budgeting priorities in Wenling City. These mini-publics are comprised of ordinary citizens allowed to select policy recommendation after a structured process of deliberation, but their agenda and remit remains under the control of local CCP officials.
 F. Polletta, Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002).
 W. Smith, ‘Anarchist Deliberation’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 27:2 (2022), forthcoming.
 D. Owen and G. Smith, ‘Survey Article: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Systemic Turn’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 23 (2015), pp. 213-234, at p. 228.
 B. Franks, N. Jun and L. Williams (Eds), Anarchism: A Conceptual Approach, (London: Routledge, 2018).
 N. Schneider, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013), pp. 56-64.
 D. Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography, (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2009), pp. 336-352.
 He and Warren, ‘Authoritarian Deliberation’, p. 269.
 L‐C. Lo, ‘The Implications of Deliberative Democracy in Wenling for the Experimental Approach: Deliberative Systems in Authoritarian China’, Constellations (2021), https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8675.12546
 M. Fisher, ‘Indirect Action: Some Misgivings about Horizontalism’, in P. Gielen (Ed.), Institutional Attitudes: Instituting Art in a Flat World, (Valiz: Amsterdam, 2013), pp. 101-114.
 I’d like to thank Marius Ostrowski for the invitation to write this post for Ideology Theory Practice and for his generous comments on the initial draft.