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Associations and Democracy*

  • Joshua Cohen (a1) and Joel Rogers (a2)

Since the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, normative democratic theory has focused principally on three tasks: refining principles of justice, clarifying the nature of political justification, and exploring the public policies required to ensure a just distribution of education, health care, and other basic resources. Much less attention has been devoted to examining the political institutions and social arrangements that might plausibly implement reasonable political principles. Moreover, the amount of attention paid to issues of organizational and institutional implementation has varied sharply across the different species of normative theory. Neoliberal theorists, concerned chiefly with protecting liberty by taming power, and essentially hostile to the affirmative state, have been far more sensitive to such issues than egalitarian-democratic theorists, who simultaneously embrace classically liberal concerns with choice, egalitarian concerns with the distribution of resources, and a republican emphasis on the values of citizen participation and public debate (we sketch such a conception below in Section I). Neglect of how such values might be implemented has deepened the vulnerability of egalitarian-democratic views to the charge of being unrealistic: “good in theory but not so good in practice.”

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1 See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), whose own work is an exception to the generalization made in the text. Another prominent exception is Unger, Roberto's False Necessity, vol. 2 of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

2 For examples of the institutional program of “neoliberal constitutionalists” hostile to the affirmative state, see Hayek, Friedrich A., The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); idem, The Mirage of Social Justice, vol. 2 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); and Buchanan, James M., The Limits of Liberty: Betunen Anarchy and Leviathan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).

3 So-called because they are, by convention, the large residual of the “primary” organizations of the family, firm, and state.

4 We share the term “associative democracy” with Mathews, John, Age of Democracy: The Political Economy of Post-Fordism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). But we arrived at the term independently.

5 This procedural formulation of the idea of popular sovereignty does not assume a people with a single will, and thus is immune to the criticisms directed against that assumption by, for example, Riker, William, Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1982).

6 Among the fundamental issues we will put to the side here are intense national and religious divisions and the destructive conflicts associated with them.

7 For discussion of some prominent exaggerations, see Downs, George W. and Larkey, Patrick D., The Search for Government Efficiency: From Hubris to Helplessness (New York: Random House, 1986). In the United States, increased public doubt about government capacity to achieve egalitarian ends is coincident with increased support for those ends. The “politics of happiness” that some saw in the reformist projects of the 1960s has been succeeded by a “politics of sadness” in which the public knows that it is not getting what it wants, but has no confidence that government can provide it.

8 Many saw this as irreversible. See, for example, Habermas, Jürgen, The Legitimation Crisis of Late Capitalism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973).

9 On unions, see Visser, Jelle, “Trends in Trade Union Membership,” OECD Employment Outlook, 07 1991, pp. 97134.

10 For the American case, see the classic characterization of the resulting “interest group liberalism” offered by Lowi, Theodore J., The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States, 2d ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979).

11 Throughout, respect for the associational liberties of group members, recognition of the resistance of many groups to change, and rejection of concessionist views of associations mean that the strategy stops well short of legislating associative practice or its relation to the state. Associative democracy is not a distinct form of order, but a strategy to reform aspects of current practice.

12 de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage, 1945), vol. 2, p. 117.

13 See Schmitter, Philippe C., “Still the Century of Corporatism?Review of Politics, vol. 36 (1974), pp. 85131; Berger, Suzanne, ed., Organizing Interests in Western Europe: Pluralism, Corporatism, and the Transformation of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and Goldthorpe, John H., ed., Order and Conflict in Contemporary Capitalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

14 For useful description and analysis of such coordination in Scandinavia, see Korpi, Walter, The Democratic Class Struggle (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983); Esping-Andersen, Gosta, Politics against Markets (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); for a good comparative treatment of the Swedish and German cases, and the role played by corporatist institutions in facilitating wage stability and industrial upgrading, see Swenson, Peter, Fair Shares: Unions, Pay, and Politics in Sweden and West Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); and Turner, Lowell, Democracy at Work: Changing World Markets and the Future of Labor Unions (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). For a general review of problems that have beset social democracies since the mid-1970s, see Scharpf, Fritz W., Crisis and dioice in European Social Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

15 See Sabel, Charles F., “Flexible Specialization and the Re-emergence of Regional Economies,” in Reversing Industrial Decline: Industrial Structure and Policy in Britain and Her Competitors, ed. Hirst, Paul Q. and Zeitlin, Jonathan (Oxford: Berg, 1989), pp. 1770; and Streeck, Wolfgang, “On the Institutional Conditions of Diversified Quality Production,” in Beyond Keynesianism: The Socio-Economies of Production and Employment, ed. Matzner, Egon and Streeck, Wolfgang (London: Edward Elgar, 1991), pp. 2161.

16 For examples of state policy, see Rosenfeld, Stuart A., Technology Innovation and Rural Development: Lessons from Italy and Denmark (Washington: Aspen Institute, 1990). We emphasize that state policy is in fact needed in all these cases: the appropriate infrastructure does not emerge naturally from the interactions of economic actors or from favorable cultural tradition. For further discussion, see Section III below.

17 For this and other examples of “flexible manufacturing networks,” see Hatch, C. Richard, Flexible Manufacturing Netiwrks: Cooperation for Competitiveness in a Global Economy (Washington: Corporation for Enterprise Development, 1988).

18 For a review of worker participation in safety regulation focusing on Europe, see the contributions to Bagnara, Sabastiano, Misiti, Raffaello, and Wintersberger, Helmut, eds., Work and Health in the 1980s: Experiences of Direct Workers' Participation in Occupational Health (Berlin: Edition Sigma, 1985); for a particularly useful country study, see Gustavsen, Bjorn and Hunnius, Gerry, New Patterns of Work Reform: The Case of Norway (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1981); for the contrast with the United States, see Noble, Charles, liberalism at Work: The Rise and Fall of OSHA (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), and Bardach, Eugene and Kagan, Robert, Going by the Book (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).

19 For a close examination of the different public powers enjoyed by the “social partners” in the German case, see Streeck, Wolfgang, Hilbert, Joseph, van Kevelaer, Karl-Heinz, Maier, Frederike, and Weber, Hajo, The Role of the Social Partners in Vocational Training and Further Training in the Federal Republic of Germany (Berlin: European Center for the Development of Vocational Training, 1987).

20 The phrase and the point come from Schmitter, Philippe C., “Interest Intermediation and Regime Governability in Contemporary Western Europe and North America,” in Berger, , ed., Organizing Interests, pp. 285327.

21 See Madison, James, Federalist 10, in The Federalist (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1907), pp. 5160. We are concerned here only with what Madison called “minority” faction.

22 See, for example, the discussion of “fire-alarm” enforcement in McCubbins, Mathew D. and Schwartz, Thomas, “Congressional Oversight Overlooked: Police Patrols vs. Fire Alarms,” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 28 (1984), pp. 165–79.

23 Jaffe, Louis, “Law-Making by Private Groups,” Harvard Law Review, vol. 51 (1937), pp. 220–21.

24 See Lange, Peter, Union Democracy and Liberal Corporatism: Exit, Voice, and Wage Regulation in Postwar Europe, Cornell Studies in International Affairs, Occasional Paper No. 16. The measures include rules governing election to union councils, intermediate organizations, and national office; the incidence and support of informal caucuses; and procedures for debate and vote on strikes, contracts, and other sorts of concerted action.

25 These effects are noted in Sunstein, Cass, “Constitutionalism after the New Deal,” Harvard Law Review, vol. 101 (1987), pp. 480–81: “The movement toward increased congressional control is not without risks of its own [since] … undue specificity may produce regulation riddled by factional tradeoffs.”

26 For an instructive discussion of the role of nonprofit organizations in welfare-state service delivery, emphasizing the increased dependence of many of these agencies on their ties to government, see Smith, Steven Rathgeb and Lipsky, Michael, The Age of Contracting: Nonprofit Agencies and the Welfare State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, forthcoming).

27 A useful (though not impartial) recent survey of local economic development strategies is provided in Fosler, R. Scott, Local Economic Development (Washington: International City Management Association, 1991).

28 For an enthusiastic review of some of the emerging linkages between schools and private business associations, see Carnevale, Anthony, Gainer, Leila, Villet, Janice, and Holland, Shari, Training Partnerships: Linking Employers and Providers (Alexandria: American Society for Training and Development, 1990).

29 JTPA has been widely criticized as insufficiently accountable to public needs. Among others, see Donahue, John D., Shortchanging the Workforce: The Job Training Partnership Act and the Overselling of Privatized Training (Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 1989); United States General Accounting Office (GAO), Job Training Partnership Act: Inadequate Oversight Leaves Program Vulnerable to Waste, Abuse, and Mismanagement, GAO/HRD-91–97 (Washington: General Accounting Office, 1991).

30 Some of the federal experience is reviewed in Powers, Charles W., The Role of NGOs in Improving the Employment of Science and Technology in Environmental Management (New York: Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, 05 1991); the experience of local communities in fostering such environmental bargaining among organized groups is reviewed in McLenighan, Valjean, Sustainable Manufacturing: Saving Jobs, Saving the Environment (Chicago: Center for Neighborhood Technology, 1990).

31 The force of this claim will emerge in our discussion of the role of associations in vocational training.

32 For a general review of the U.S. industrial relations system emphasizing these interactions, see Rogers, Joel, “Divide and Conquer: ‘Further Reflections on the Distinctive Character of American Labor Law,’” Wisconsin Law Review, 1990, pp. 1147; for a recent review of the state of the American labor movement, see the contributions to Strauss, George, Gallagher, Daniel G., and Fiorito, Jack, eds., The State of the Unions (Madison: Industrial Relations Research Association, 1991).

33 There are many such statements of possible labor-law reform. A good guide to the issues involved, containing both more and less ambitious recommendations for reform, is provided by Weiler, Paul, Governing the Workplace: The Future of Labor and Employment Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).

34 For general reviews of U.S. training problems, making all these points, see U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Worker Training: Competing in the International Economy, OTA ITE-457 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1990); and Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! (Rochester: National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990).

35 For a good review of wage trends in the United States, and the more general decline in living standards among nonsupervisory workers, see Mishel, Lawrence and Frankel, David M., The State of Working America, 1990–91 edition (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1990).

36 A word of explanation on the focus. Demand by American employers for high and broad frontline workforce skills is extremely weak and uneven. Unless this changes, supply-side innovations geared to improving skill delivery to frontline workers will risk having all the effect of “pushing on a string.” Moreover, competitive pressures acting alone cannot be counted on to change the structure of employer demand in the desired way, since employers can choose to respond to those pressures by reducing wages, increasing firm productivity through changes in work organization that “dumb down” most jobs while increasing the human-capital component of a well-paid few, or simply moving away from high-end markets. Most U.S. firms, in fact, have chosen some combination of these “low wage, low skill” competitive strategies. To remedy the demand-side problem, it is essential to foreclose this option. The most obvious way to do this is to build stable floors under wages, and effective linkage between productivity improvements and wage compensation, thus forcing employers to be more attentive to strategies for increasing the productivity of their labor (e.g., skill upgrading). Direct state action can help here, by increasing minimum-wage floors. As regards more specifically associative reform, however—and this is why we do not linger on the demand side—we believe the most important actions are those already outlined in the recommendations just made on improving industrial relations. Deeper and more encompassing worker organizations, especially ones shaped by social interests in improved cooperation, would help create the needed wage floors, wage-productivity linkages, and pressures within firms to upgrade. Moreover, they could be expected to do so in a way that not only raised the aggregate demand for skills and their compensation, but improved the distribution of both. The basic problem on the demand side is that the interests of the bulk of the population, workers, are simply not now centrally in the picture. They are barely represented in the economy, and only very imperfectly represented in the state. The basic solution to under-representation is to improve the conditions of their organization in ways consistent with other democratic norms.

37 The importance of these limits rises where, as in the United States, the public training system lacks any effective industry-based-training complement.

38 The Department of Labor's Office of Work-Based Learning is already making qualified moves in this direction—“qualified” in that, outside more heavily unionized industries, it remains unclear what, if any, organized voice workers in the industry will have.

39 Following current practice for joint research and development activities.

40 Recommendations on how to do this are made in Hilton, Margaret, “Shared Training: Learning from GermanyMonthly Labor Review, vol. 114, no. 3 (03 1991), pp. 3337.

41 An experiment along these lines is now underway in Milwaukee, where several firms (nonunion and unionized), unions, and public training providers have come together around a Wisconsin Manufacturing Training Consortium designed to do just these things. See Rogers, Joel and Streeck, Wolfgang, “Recommendations for Action” (Madison: Center on Wisconsin Strategy, 1991).

* This essay is drawn from a book-in-progress called Associative Democracy: Democratic Renewal Beyond the Mischiefs of Faction. Drafts of the book manuscript have been presented at meetings of the American Political Science Association, Princeton University Political Theory Colloquium, Social Organization Colloquium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Society for Ethical and Legal Philosophy, UCLA Center for History and Social Theory, University of Chicago Colloquium on Constitutionalism, University of Maryland Seminar on Political Theory, PEGS (Political Economy of the Good Society), and CREA (École Polytechnique); drafts have also been presented at the conference on “Post-Liberal Democratic Theory” held at the University of Texas at Austin, and at the “Associations and Democracy” conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We are grateful to participants in those discussions for many useful comments and suggestions, and especially to Bruce Ackerman, Suzanne Berger, Owen Fiss, Charles Sabel, Wolfgang Streeck, and Erik Olin Wright for the same. We also thank the editors of Social Philosophy & Policy for comments on an earlier draft of this essay. A shorter version of this essay will appear in Market Socialism, ed. Pranab Bardhan and John Roemer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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