Grassroots democracy: a political and philosophical analysis

Canadian political philosopher James Tully distinguishes two forms of democratic activity: ‘restrictive’ and ‘extensive’ democracy (‘Democracy and Globalisation: A Defeasible Sketch’ (2001)). ‘Restrictive democracy’ refers to ‘the mature and predominant practices of government and democracy typical of representative democratic nation-states’ (Tully, 2001, 38). ‘Extensive democracy’ refers to non- or differently representative practices of collective resistance that, according to Tully, ‘cannot be understood adequately in terms of the theories and traditions of representative government’ (Tully, 2001, 39). Modern political philosophy, in its focus on reasons, norms and abstract principles, mostly overlooks extensive democracy, which takes place ‘beneath the threshold of the formal features of law and democracy’ (Tully, 2001, 53). This enables philosophers to preserve a clear distinction between political and social philosophy, yet at the expense of obscuring the social processes at the basis of the political as such.

Tully locates the origins of extensive democracy in early modern struggles against power. Following Michel Foucault, he argues that, from the time of the European Reformation, increasing emphasis was placed – first in the military, then later in hospitals, schools, workhouses, and prisons – on the drilling and performance evaluation of individuals. Extensive democracy initially emerged as a response to these new ‘disciplinary’ modes of administration. People assembled in the streets, facing-off against pikes, swords, and crossbows, demanding a say in the manner in which they were governed. The Age of Revolutions was born. It rode in on the back of extensive movements, the expression of a popular desire to change the world.

This historical background helps resolve an apparent problem in Tully’s use of the term ‘democracy’. On the face of it, Tully’s use of this term is a misuse, insofar as it seems to equate democracy with popular protest. This is not how we ordinarily understand democracy today. However Tully, I would suggest, is not using the term ‘democracy’ in the sense in which we’d ordinarily understand it today. Tully understands ‘democracy’ in an early modern sense. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the term ‘democracy’ was commonly linked to popular protest. Before the rise of elected governments, the term ‘democracy’ was associated with rowdy peasant gatherings in streets and town squares, often prefiguring riot or revolt. For authorities of the day, ‘democracy’ was a ‘term of abuse’ (Tully, 2001, 44). Contemporary authorities take a similarly dismissive view of street level protest movements, often deploying riot police and water cannons to keep them in check, and to a large extent barring them from involvement in high-level discussions and policy development.

Tully outlines three main features of extensive democratic struggles:

1. Extensive struggles contest dominant social and political norms. Extensive struggles identify and articulate problematic social and political norms, casting practices that express these norms in a critical light, and encouraging agents to transform or abandon these modes of activity. As Tully puts it, the ‘disputational strategies’ of extensive struggles centrally involve questioning, contesting, and seeking to renegotiate hegemonic practices of governance and forms of life (Tully, 2001, 55). Importantly, extensive democrats situate themselves within the world of relations of power that they seek to transform. Instead of locating themselves outside established power-relations (as insurgents), they struggle to transform society and politics from within (Tully, 2001, 55).

2. Extensive struggles have a networked mode of organization. Extensive struggles are not orchestrated by a party or a political avant-garde. Such struggles emerge, instead, about common problems experienced by diverse agents. Here we see the network structure of extensive democracy: groups and individuals cohere with other groups and individuals on the basis of issues and concerns that they share in common. Relations between parties remain informal and, for the most part, provisional – this is what gives extensive struggles their flexibility and scope.

3. Extensive struggles create new forms of identity. While extensive struggles tend to be explictly directed at ‘the rules, norms, . . . or means of gaining consent in a practice of government’, they also contest ‘the pre-reflective yet non-mechanical modes of comportment – thought and action – that constitute the forms of subjectivity (identities and roles) of the participants . . .’ (Tully, 2001, 54). Extensive struggles create new forms of identity. Through the contestation of norms and the establishment of new social networks, extensive struggles facilitate the creation of new ways of being and new perspectives on the world. Extensive struggles are not only struggles to change the world – they are, for participants, vehicles for the transformation of the self. The task of progressive movements is not simply that of ‘reframing’ or reinterpreting questions of justice, but of opening up and legitimating a complex corporeal-affective space capable of supporting, not only new questions and concerns, but a new forms of personal identity that can greatly impacts on political and juridical debates.

Our familiarity with the rules and norms of electoral democracy makes it hard for us today to understand what is ‘democratic’ about extensive struggles. Yet there is nothing more equally distributed, nor reflective of political autonomy, than the power to resist power, or to determine, together with others, the powers that ought to be resisted. To the extent that extensive democratic struggles drive the reformation of values and norms in society, they are an original expression of democracy itself. In the collective contestation of norms, and in the agonistic resistance to power, we glimpse a primordial expression of the demos as such.


  1. Interesting subject matter. This is the kind of article I’m interested in.

    I’d like to invite you to visit my blog

  2. Thanks for this elaboration. “at the expense of obscuring the social processes at the basis of the political as such” pretty much describes my root distaste for university studies. (In the 70s … things were much better in the late 80s. I tried to connect the social psych that incorporated cog-psych with historiography.) And “a response to these new ‘disciplinary’ modes of administration” very much captures the spirit of our resistance in the 60s!

    I think this is what has in-formed and inspired my approach to a system for “participatory deliberation” … the notion that at their base policy decisions are personal and, ultimately, subjective. (I really wish I had had more time for Jurgen Habermas.)

    p.s. from CBC Radio’s “Ideas” series: Them Making of the Modern Public. Makes me wish I was back in university!

  3. p.s. I just came across a blog thread I’d lost track of: Stephen Stringer’s “CBO: Congressional Budget Obfuscation”. I’m guessing that this is the sort of thing that interests you? (I don’t mean the CBO aspect, I mean Gov’t and obfuscation.) My comments there might give you a sense of what I’m working at.


  1. […] Here is the original post: Grassroots democracy: a political and philosophical analysis … […]

  2. […] be as intimate as a group of friends or as sprawling as a transnational movement. A multitude is an extensive network. They take shape when a group of people grasp that together they could be more than just a team, a […]

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