Justice by Means of Democracy by Danielle Allen • The University of Chicago Press • 2023 • 288 pages • $28
History is filled with moments in which we have had to reimagine our political, economic, and social systems. This is one of those moments. Turmoil and polarization are indicators of the demand for change. And as I wrote recently in Daedalus, the outcome is still uncertain. We could end up with reactionary governments and fascism, but we could also transform our policies and practices in ways that will benefit all of us and create a more just and flourishing democracy.
Harvard political philosopher and former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Danielle Allen is highly alert to these possibilities. The evidence is in her leadership of the Plurality Institute and Partners in Democracy, two efforts to renovate democracy and counteract the forces that are undermining societal justice and cooperation. She lays out her vision and portfolio of actions in Justice by Means of Democracy. Her underlying claim is that “Justice…is best pursued by means of democracy. Treating political liberties as a non-sacrificeable element of the basic liberties to be protected means seeking to achieve difference without domination across the three core domains of human society: political institutions, civil society, and the economy.” Throughout the book, she substantiates her claim and offers concrete proposals to realize it.
Allen begins with a critique of John Rawls, the great twentieth-century philosopher of liberalism. This should come as no surprise. Allen is part of the same intellectual tradition: She, like Rawls, theorizes about democracy, justice, and the protection of basic rights and liberties. But Allen departs from the liberal thinkers of Rawls’s generation in important ways, beginning with her focus on the “positive liberties.” She argues that liberalism took a wrong turn in the nineteenth century when the French philosopher Benjamin Constant not only distinguished positive from negative liberties but prioritized the second. Constant ranked negative liberties—that is, freedom from intervention in one’s private property or autonomy—over positive liberties, which he called the “rights of the ancients,” and Allen describes as “political rights, the right to be a part of a society that was working together to steer itself through collective decision-making.” In Allen’s view, Rawls failed in his attempt to come up with an amalgam of the two. She argues that he, too, makes political liberties, such as the right to vote and be eligible for political office, secondary to negative liberties, such as “liberty of conscience” and the fulfillment of material needs.
Allen’s counterclaim is that political liberties should never be sacrificed. She grounds this claim in an additional departure from her predecessors, which is her emphasis on political equality. She argues that equality is both instrumentally and intrinsically valuable, and that political liberties are the key to its achievement. She adds, however, that equality can never be fully achieved through the processes instantiated in the U.S. founding documents and those of other democracies. While one person, one vote may be a necessary condition of democracy, it is not sufficient. Political equality also depends on institutions that, by giving everyone a voice and a role in decision-making, create “a full sharing of power and responsibility.” This, in turn, requires social relations that are based on mutual respect and enhance individual dignity; these depend on what she labels “a connected society” that creates ties that bridge differences while also recognizing those differences. She proposes mixed-income housing, improved transportation between rural and urban communities, and schools and organizations that promote socioeconomic mixing as ways to help build such a society.
Allen is searching for a means to avoid the discrimination and inequities that emerge from hierarchies of status and from segregation, even when those conditions are informal rather than the effects of a legal regime. The kind of connected society Allen seeks depends on one of her most basic principles: “difference without domination,” that is, supporting diversity but without making it the basis of status and power distinctions. While “difference without domination” requires recognition of the wide variation in peoples’ choices concerning where and how to live a life that is meaningful to them, Allen wants to undermine the intolerance embedded in the belief that one’s own way of life is superior. Indeed, she advocates for “polypolitanism,” which she contrasts to cosmopolitanism:
Cosmopolitanism asks us to look past our membership in a nation-state to our membership in the global community. We are to imagine connecting with any and every human being from anywhere on the planet. In contrast, polypolitanism orients us toward the need to support one another in embracing multiple, nonoverlapping organizational and political affiliations. It asks us to look to other forms of membership, alongside our membership in the nation-state, and to learn to navigate the experience of social diversity that comes from being a member of multiple, nonoverlapping political and social networks.
Allen’s final important move is to include economic empowerment as a key component of “justice by means of democracy,” for it is economies and, more specifically, the extent to which they enable general material well-being and relatively equitable labor relations that “empower the citizenry to succeed as civic participants.” Thus, Allen calls for “design principles for an empowering economy: (1) free labor, democracy-supporting firms, and a good jobs economy; (2) investment in bridging relationships; and (3) democratic steering of the economy.”
In sum, Justice by Means of Democracy moves us away from parochial definitions of identity and nation to an active model of democratic power and citizenship—one that is in the service of a just, relational, economically empowering, dignity-enhancing, and inclusively democratic society. And by elaborating the principles that could form the basis of such a society, Allen is also able to lay out criteria for making policies that might actually create it.
She even suggests what some of those policies should be. As Allen presents her principles throughout the book, she simultaneously proposes changes in institutional arrangements, cultural practices, and public policies that will ensure the principles can be realized. In doing so, she builds on and goes beyond the concrete recommendations of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’s 2020 report Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, which she co-chaired. This melding of theoretical arguments with realistic means of implementation is a core strength of her democratizing project.
In the 2020 report, the focus was on improving citizen representation and government responsiveness while inspiring “a culture of commitment to American constitutional democracy and one another.” The many recommendations included independent citizen redistricting commissions; term limits on Supreme Court justices; felon enfranchisement; improvements in the civic information ecosystem by regulating social media and creating alternative sources; an expectation that most people perform a year of national service; and investments in civic education. In Justice by Means of Democracy, Allen elaborates on ideas from the report’s earlier list and supplements them with proposals focused on social connectedness and economic empowerment.
Allen’s proposals for enhancing economic empowerment range from restrictions on wage theft to extensions of democratic governance at firms (by giving workers more rights and power in the workplace) to the creation of new industrial policies. On this last point, Allen is influenced by the work of Harvard economist Dani Rodrik and his collaborators. They consider a mix of preproduction, production, and postproduction policies to ensure people have what they need as employees, i.e., health care and education, good job policies, labor rights, and regulation of wages and labor standards. Of equal import are social insurance, tax, and full employment policies that provide the income and social safety nets essential for workers to flourish on and off the job.
Allen pushes us to think harder about the requirements of democracy and to engage in experiments on the ground and in thought. By challenging us in this way, she also invites criticism in the service of our collective effort.
Some of my critique is minor. For this book to have the impact it should, it will need versions more accessible to the non-academic reader. Undoubtedly this is Allen’s intention, given her activities as a politician and advocate. Of slightly more import, Allen— by situating herself in political philosophy—seems to give herself permission to neglect key arguments in political and social theory. Political theorist Robert Dahl gets not a single mention; nor do other major figures in democratic theory, such as the political scientist Adam Przeworski. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom gets into the bibliography, but without an acknowledgement of her very different model of plurality. Perhaps engagement with these and other thinkers would have distracted from Allen’s project, but in some cases citing their work might have helped.
Someone whose work would definitely help is Marshall Ganz, famed community organizer, political sociologist, and Allen’s colleague at Harvard. His forthcoming People, Power, and Change summarizes his multi-year efforts. Reflecting on Ganz’s contributions reveals a lacuna in Allen’s account: While she brilliantly leads us to the point where we believe another way of interacting is possible and more ambitious aspirations potentially attainable, she offers neither a satisfying theory of change nor tools for actuating that change.
This absence is significant. The kinds of intertwined organizations, the polypolitanism, that Allen advocates require a public that buys in. Moreover, as Allen well knows and on occasion mentions, change often requires mobilization and social movements. For instance, Allen advocates for democratic governance of firms. While one could argue that democratic governance would lead to higher productivity, that kind of argument won’t win the day. What will win is effective labor action and pressure. Unless legislators believe they will be rewarded, or at least not punished, by voters, they are unlikely to pass transformative laws. Indeed, they often need to be pushed into action by fear of mass opposition. The civil rights movement is perhaps the most famous recent American case in point. Of course, popular actions are not always progressive, but this hardly negates the fact that an understanding of how people mobilize is an essential part of any theory of change.
Allen outlines the conditions necessary for mobilization on behalf of the common good: polypolitanism within a connected society that bridges difference and relies on collective decision-making. Yet, she does not take the next step of explaining how those connections might translate into political power and then into new institutions and policies. Civic education and citizen engagement in policymaking may produce good plans to be implemented without offering pathways to accomplish change. Organizations should bring people together to learn to respect each other and debate civilly, but they must also provide means for turning the collective will into collective action.
In his work, Ganz outlines the steps for doing just that and reminds us how each step is itself the product of purposive planning. Sports teams and orchestras require coaches and conductors, and so, too, do effective political movements. Leadership and strategies can emerge spontaneously, for sure, but activists benefit from training and knowledge of what works.
Activists must also be alert to the circumstances that could inhibit success and the conditions that inspire people to act. Ganz tells a wonderful story in Why David Sometimes Wins: When a picketing farmworker came to the San Francisco docks to encourage the longshore workers to refuse to load grapes picked by non-unionized workers, the local longshore leader had to teach him to reword his sign to secure worker cooperation and evade police obstruction. The farmworker already suspected that this was a union willing to support the farmworkers, but he had to learn the process to trigger their actions.
Indeed, the West Coast longshore union is itself an instance of purposive organization. In the Interest of Others (co-authored by me and John Ahlquist) documents the specific governance arrangements, socialization, and educational processes designed to encourage workers, who joined the union for financial reasons, to act in solidarity with others worldwide—even if the actions were costly and those on whose behalf they acted could never reciprocate. The union’s rank-and-file democracy became a trustworthy source of information and facilitated discussions that gave members reasons to act collectively on behalf of others. Their motto, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” became a norm requiring action upon the revelation of injustice. What the longshore workers developed, in our words, was an expanded and inclusive community of fate.
Allen recognizes that group members must come to trust and respect each other, even when they disagree. That’s a start, but it’s not enough: They must also believe that actions are worth doing and understand the conditions under which collective action is most likely to be effective. It is on points like these that insights from Ganz and others might have further strengthened this already formidable book.
Danielle Allen has some resemblance to Frances Perkins, the fourth labor secretary and first female member of the Cabinet. Perkins was the woman who helped bring us Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and countless other transformational social programs and protections in collaboration with her boss, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like Perkins, Allen is developing a portfolio of policies and programs to offer when the time is ready. Like Perkins, she develops her proposals through exchanges with the most thoughtful thinkers of the day. Like Perkins, Allen discerns the importance of reaching the ears of those in power to implement new policies. But Allen could benefit from more faithfully following another of Perkins’s precepts: Social movements are not only an important source of ideas but also the means for creating the pressure and the opportunity to implement the programs in her portfolio.
Allen has written a magnificent manifesto of democracy and justice. She offers a glimpse of the pathway from polarizing identity to a connected and inclusive society that values difference and inhibits domination. She suggests ways to ensure that the whole polity—not just its highly educated and wealthy elite—has a voice and shares political responsibility. She offers policies that will help to create bridges among people and promote human flourishing. She provides nearly all the conditions essential for a democratic economy, polity, and society. But ultimately, her ideas must gain traction and legitimacy with a wide public. And that public must have a strategy for effective mobilization and a commitment to act collectively. Otherwise, justice by means of democracy may well remain a pipe dream.