Department of History of Science and Ideas

Sofia Näsström: "The Spirit of the People: Thinking Democracy beyond the Nation-State"

  • Date: –15:00
  • Location: Engelska parken - Rausing Room
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: Sven Widmalm
  • Seminarium

Sofia Näsström, Uppsala University: "The Spirit of the People: Thinking Democracy beyond the Nation-State"


Abstract
In contemporary democracies, “the people” is generally seen as the source of democratic law. We take decisions based on its will, and we speak in its name. In the wake of increasing globalization and migration, however, the people has turned into a political question in its own right. The fact that political decisions can travel across borders has prompted a debate on the appropriate scope of the people, whether it should be national, regional or cosmopolitan. Moreover, theorists as well as politicians have started debating whether there should be open or closed borders, and how to distinguish citizens from migrants, aliens, refugees and stateless persons. At issue in these debates is nothing less than the basis of democracy itself: who ought to belong to “we, the people”. But despite increasing attention to the topic of the people, political theorists often call attention to a fundamental paradox: how to democratically constitute the people. They argue that while the people constitutes the only legitimate source of democratic authority, it cannot lend itself the legitimacy it needs to qualify as such. It cannot decide on its own composition. In order to do so, as Rousseau writes, “the social spirit which is to be the work of the institution would have to preside over the institution itself, and men would have to be prior to laws what they ought to become by means of them”. With this paradox in mind, many scholars conclude that the constitution of the people falls beyond the scope of democratic theory. They argue that how peoples are formed is either a historical question decided by arbitrary factors such as accident, convention or war, or a moral question decided by norms that exist independently of the democratic process.

In the seminar I will present the introduction to the book The Spirit of the People: Thinking Democracy beyond the Nation-State. The main plot of the book is this: Modern democracy is not based on the people. It has no people. Modern democracy is a form of government made up of actions and institutions, and these actions and institutions contain certain “principles” in Montesquieu’s sense of the term, or public commitments that together make up the spirit of the people. The introduction clarifies this view, and spells out its significance for the debate on people-making, among others, by exploring the concept of democratic corruption and recreation.