Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts


Stephen P. Turner

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University


    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

    Mike Hepworth, University of Aberdeen

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Roland Robertson, University of Aberdeen

    Bryan S. Turner, University of Cambridge


    The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journals Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes operate from the TCS Centre at Nottingham Trent University. For further details of the TCS Centre's activities please contact:

    Centre Administrator The TCS Centre, Room 175 Faculty of Humanities Nottingham Trent University Clifton Lane, Nottingham, NG11 8NS, UK



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    For Douglas Carrera Turner

    …in the general interest, domination should be proportionate to enlightenment.

    (Henri Comte de Saint-Simon [1803]1952: 8)

    The decision of the question whether a man do reason rightly, belongs to the city.

    (Thomas Hobbes [1651]1839: 268–9)

    The Republic has no need of scientists.

    (attributed to the Presiding Judge in the trial of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, in response to the chemist's request for a delay in his execution to enable him to complete some scientific work)


    This book may be read in a number of ways, and by a number of audiences, so it is perhaps my task as author to identify, or confess to, a few of the ways it was intended to be read, and in the course of this to explain its relation to a number of other texts that are important to it, but either unmentioned or undiscussed.

    The series in which this book appears, Theory, Culture & Society, together with my role in relation to the journal and its concerns, suggests one way of reading it: as a text that is in a broad sense a ‘Weberian’ or Weberian-Schmittian account of the problem of experts and its bearing on Liberal Democracy. The mode of explanation and the conclusions parallel, in some respects, the historical accounts that Weber gives of the origins of modern bureaucracy in the slow rise of the royal staff in its struggle with the feudal aristocracy, and, in his Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations (1976), the slow transformation of slaves and small-holders into serf-like dependents. In Liberal Democracy 3.0, the slow transformation is from a politics of sovereign citizens to a politics of diffused experts, in which electoral struggle is gradually supplanted by what I call ‘commissions,’ that is to say expert bodies. The ‘3.0’ in the title refers to a periodization of Liberalism that is elaborated in Chapter 5, from the initial forms of Liberalism in which the franchise was restricted, to the late nineteenth century form, of government by discussion with full franchise, to the form that I argue is now emerging: a form in which ‘discussion’ is limited to those topics not delegated to experts. The argument, in this reading, can be seen to contrast to that of Foucault and Habermas, for reasons that will be discussed in the text itself. Habermas, like much of the Left today, has taken up the idea of civil society as an ideal. One of the followers of Habermas wrote a paper on the theme of nostalgia as critique. One point of this book is to ask whether a critique based on the ideal of civil society is an exercise in nostalgia.

    The book may also be read as a text in political theory. It updates and extends arguments made by the great nineteenth century liberals, from Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill to Albert Venn Dicey, who lived long enough to see and understand what was happening as the older liberalism began to turn into the mode of governance we are familiar with today, which he identified with the ‘collectivist’ current of opinion that emerged, by his reckoning, in the period after the American Civil War. Dicey associated this socialist current with the idea of rule by experts, a political idea with an interesting subsequent history on the Left, which eventuates in one or another model of ‘the democratic control of science.’ To this largely familiar story, something is added: a consideration of the thinking of James Bryant Conant. Conant grasped that ‘democratic control’ was a dangerous illusion, and argued instead, so I will claim, for a different strategy, which I call ‘Liberalizing Expertise,’ by which I mean controlling experts indirectly and also by forcing the opinions of experts into the light provided by contentious discussion outside of the body of experts.

    The text also has some philosophy, and even a few philosophical distinctions and theses, though these are purposely kept to the side, for the most part. A more detailed discussion of the issue of the corporate character of scientific authority can be found in my ‘Scientists as Agents’ (2002a). Another set of issues involves the status of rational considerations and their relation to disciplined communities: science is a paradigm case of the organization of discourse around a scheme of common skills and exacting training. ‘Political’ rationality is not organized in this way. But even science depends on ‘political’ discussion about itself. The claims I make here involve a defense, of sorts, of the primacy of non-disciplined rationality. It has affinities with a more general anti-Kantian line of argument I have developed elsewhere, particularly in Brains/Practices/Relativism: Social Theory after Cognitive Science (2002b).

    The book is also a text in science studies, and its relation to that body of thought is sufficiently complex that a more complex explanation is owed. A better subtitle might have been ‘A Political Prolegomena to Science Studies,’ for that is what it attempts, in part, to provide: the tools for understanding the political significance of science studies. I considered, and indeed in an earlier draft attempted to formulate, the argument of the book as a critique of a series of various science studies authors, ranging from Ulrich Beck to Sheila Jasanoff and Brian Wynne, whose writings on science and politics have seemed to me interesting enough to be worthy of criticism. I decided that detailed critique was inappropriate. There was some point to a dialectical analysis of the inner contradictions of the attempt to be anti-essentialist (or ‘social constructionist’) about science and at the same time to provide some sort of external God's eye view ‘critique’ with ‘policy’ implications which bedevils ‘science studies’ attempts to be normative. But in the end I decided that this severely textual approach demanded too much and produced too little. It demanded too much from the reader, who would need to be provided with a great deal that was not in the text, notably the common ground of political theory and legal philosophy necessary to see the point of the analysis, and would produce little in the way of positive argument. But trying to do this reminded me of the difficulties that those of us with an interest in science and politics have had in establishing enough of a common problematic to start a meaningful discussion. I hope that the argument of this book, right or wrong, is sufficiently panoramic and rooted in the larger tradition of political and social theory to do so, and that someone rises to the bait.

    My point about these writers, if I was to elaborate it, would be that they are insufficiently political – not in the sense that they are insufficiently critical, for they each in their own way make gestures toward critique, or in the case of Beck formulate an elaborate critical ‘theory’ of the problem of science and politics – but in the sense that each appears, in the words of Casablanca, to be ‘shocked, shocked,’ to discover that questions like ‘what is science’ are indeed ‘political.’ Evelleen Richards, whose studies of science controversies I greatly admire, concludes one of these studies, a study of the controversy over the therapeutic value of Vitamin C as a cancer treatment, with the following: ‘therapeutic evaluation is inherently [!] a social and political process, and … the idea of neutral appraisal is a myth.’ (1988: 685). This, it seems to me, is naive, and naive not about science, but about politics. The point of this book, in a phrase, is this: to be apolitical is a political strategy, and ‘myth’ is a political term. But understanding what sort of political questions these are requires more than slogans.

    The implications of the argument for Beck are that he has stumbled upon the right problem, but addresses it with the wrong intellectual tools, leading him to what is essentially a retrograde conclusion – an attempt to reinscribe the nineteenth century problem of ‘interests’ onto the problem of experts, and then to solve this problem politically by insisting that everyone is an expert, which is a novel form of the nineteenth century solution of extending the franchise. To make this solution plausible, he must imagine that science can become a reflexive activity and thus in effect to equalize itself, and that citizens want, or should want, a form of decision-making based on discussions in which non-experts engage with ‘experts’ on equal terms, and in which considerations of competence are excluded as ‘monopolization.’ In my view, one of the implications of science studies is that science assures ‘consensus’ by the careful control (or ‘social construction’) of what is counted as science, what is counted as competent (for example in the form of the problem of who possesses the relevant tacit knowledge). Announcing ‘demonopolization’ is thus an empty gesture. ‘Monopolization’ is part of the point of the activity of scientists; so is a kind of self-discipline about what counts as science that excludes the kind of reflexivity Beck calls for. Not surprisingly, there has been a large chasm between science studies and the kind of concern reflected in Beck.

    Saying this raises a more general question about the political meaning of science studies, at least science studies in the constructionist tradition, and its relation to ‘critique.’ Many scholars of science studies are sufficiently embattled in their struggles against the political myths of science to think of themselves as engaged in a project of critique related to the Left, and in some writers, like Steve Fuller, there is a systematic attempt to carry this idea out (2000). In my view, the naive form of this self-concept is a piece of self-misunderstanding. The social constructionist account of science is symmetrical with the Oakeshottian critique of Liberal theory. Like Oakeshott, it says that the theories of the nature of the activities, politics for Oakeshott, science for writers like Harry Collins, are false – ‘abridgements,’ in Oakeshott's language – that misrepresent the activity. The ‘activity’ in each case is shown to be practical, irreducible to explicit rational principles, dependent on the tacit, and has the form, as Oakeshott says, of a tradition: ‘It is neither fixed nor finished; it has no changeless centre to which understanding can anchor itself; there is no sovereign purpose to be perceived or invariable direction to be detected; there is no model to be copied, no ideal to be realized, or rule to be followed …’ (Oakeshott 1962: 128). But in neither Oakeshott's nor Collins' case is this a critique of the activity. It is rather a critique of crippling, or selfserving, misunderstandings of the activity.

    Yet this critique does align with a ‘political’ understanding of the role of science in society: it aligns with Conant's. I might note that The Golem (Collins and Pinch 1993) is the kind of text that Conant would have commended, for it is a text about science that does not pretend that a little knowledge of scientific fact can make a good ‘citizen scientist’. For Conant and for Collins and Pinch, the understanding we need of science as citizens is of what sorts of activity are the basis of the expert claims that are presented to us as citizens. To understand this rather cryptic comment, however, one needs a big picture of the political problem of expertise, something which Collins does not provide, but this book does.

    I would like to acknowledge the support of various institutions: The National Science Foundation Ethics and Values Studies program funded the basic research out of which this project flowed; a second NSF grant (SBR-9810900) enabled me to examine thousands of actual expressions of ‘political’ thinking by scientists, which is in part the basis for the arguments in this book; SCASSS, the Swedish Center for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, where I was able to do some of the work on the book as a Fellow in 1998; and, finally, the University of Manchester, which enabled me, while an Honorary Simon Visiting Professor, to immerse myself in the papers of Bernard Lovell, but more importantly, to browse in the personal library of Lord Simon himself, which contained the writings of the Webbs, the British Left of the thirties and forties, and much more, about housing, municipal administration, and sewers, especially in Moscow. This was a lost letter from a world where the idea of benevolent rule by experts was not only alive, but revolutionary, and the object of passionate devotion.

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