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Deliberation as an ideal and practice in progressive social movements

Dieter Rucht

Power, defined by Max Weber as the capacity to impose one’s will against the will of one or several others, appears to be ubiquitous. It can be found not only in clear- cut hierarchical settings such as the military and bureaucracies but also, though often in more subtle forms, in voluntary associations, families, partnerships and youth gangs. This, however, does not mean that every concrete interaction is dominated by power relations. Just consider a decision of close friends where and when to meet next, a casual chat among neighbours about gardening, or two scholars debating the validity of an argument. However, the establishment of some sort of power as a structural feature is probably inevitable when it comes to groups or organizations that develop a certain degree of division of labour and repeatedly, or even routinely, have to solve internal conflicts and take decisions. Therefore, power is often considered to be ‘natural’ or ‘necessary’.

But what is the role of power in social groups that, based on their political ideology, promote equality, solidarity and self-determination within their own ranks at least? Such groups are especially frequent among various social and political movements that locate themselves in a leftist, liberal or emancipatory tradition and, for the lack of a better term, might be called ‘progressive’. As a rule, they invest considerable energy in minimizing or even abolishing internal power structures. Instead of embracing strong leadership or taking decisions based on the majority rule, they seek to reach, in a process of deliberation, a consensus in which, ideally, every participant full-heartedly agrees.

Whatever the ambitions and self-descriptions of such groups, as social scientists we cannot take them at face value. First, promoting an idealized selfimage may be part of a deliberate tactic to strengthen internal cohesion and/ or to attract newcomers. Second, a group’s positive self-image may also result from blind spots that become visible only from the perspective of a scientifically trained and emotionally detached observer. Third, power, because of its negative image in some groups, may occur in subtle or more disguised forms so that it is difficult to identify for both activists and scientific observers.

In the following, I will present and discuss both the ideals and practices regarding power and deliberation in several progressive movements from the labour movement in the 20th century to the contemporary Global Justice Movements. Given the enormous breadth of this field, the limited space of a book chapter and, last but not least, the lack of systematic data, I can only draw a rough picture. Whenever available and appropriate, I try to provide empirical illustrations for more general phenomena. Quantitative data on communicative practices are available only for Global Justice Movements. However, before moving to the empirical sections of this chapter, first some conceptual clarifications and theoretical assumptions will be offered. This is especially needed because key terms such as power, deliberation and democracy have multiple meanings and their relationship is far from clear.

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