What is “Radical Democracy” Anyway?

11 min readMay 3, 2023


Are you wondering what we will be exploring at our Radical Democracy Summer School? This Q&A with Research Assistant Etienne Cardin-Trudeau is an inside look at some of the big ideas and questions that we will be reading and talking about. Etienne has been working with the Participedia/SFU planning team including Joanna Ashworth, Stuart Poyntz, Tara Mahoney at Simon Fraser University’s CERi and Jesi Carson, Participedia’s Design Technology Lead. Thanks to radio broadcaster Don Shafer for some of these insightful questions.

Participedia’s Radical Democracy Summer School will take place in Vancouver, Canada, June 4–10, 2023 at Simon Fraser University (hosted by Community Engaged Research initiative at SFU).

Radical Democracy Q&A With Participedia Research Assistant Etienne Cardin-Trudeau

Etienne Cardin-Trudeau is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is working on the political philosophy of Mary Parker Follett and is interested in democratic theory, with a focus on participatory and agonistic views of democracy. His research interests also include Quebec nationalism and Indigenous politics.

Q: When we hear the term “radical democracy” are we talking about revolutionary politics? Or is it much more than that?

E C-T: This is one of the tensions inside the broad umbrella of ideas and theories that we assemble under the term radical democracy. There are many propositions that aim at significant transformation, and yet are more often than not attached to liberal values and existing institutions. For instance, political theorist Chantal Mouffe wants to give power back to the people, energize the ability of the people to act, or of social movements to destabilize the current political order, yet she stresses the importance of respecting liberal rights and freedoms. But we are often faced with the need to act urgently to redress inequalities, or to attend to processes that intensify climate deregulation. The difficulty is that the processes by which things like ecological collapse get closer and accelerate are tied to the status quo, to laissez-faire and drift. To act to reverse the trend, there is a need for a conscious use of democratic power to destabilize the status quo and create a window of opportunity for an intentional and democratic transition. If the kind of bloody revolution humanity has experienced throughout its history ought to be avoided, revolution as a popularly-led rapid transformation of the social order might be necessary.

Radical democracy implies returning to the roots of democracy and its core values. I see it as a process rather than a model of politics. It might be better to talk of radicalizing democracy. But what do we mean by returning to the roots of democracy? I certainly do not think we should go back to the type of exclusionary politics of the Ancient Greek. The “going back,” to me, is not so much temporal, but etymological. If Demos means people, and if Kratos means power, then what does it mean for the people to have power? Radical democracy proposes to examine both terms and redefine them in a way that both renders more porous the boundaries of the people and articulates different understandings of its power; how it materializes and can be grown, fostered and, to a certain extent, legitimately constrained.

Q: Deliberative democracy is one of the strands explored in the summer school and relies on enhancing the public exchange of reasons to deepen democracy. Considering that humans have never been more polarized in history, is that possible?

E C-T: The idea that this is the most polarized era of humanity seems intuitively to ring true, but I’m not sure it is fully accurate. Certainly, Western democracies have seen an extension of the Overton window to the far-right in the last 50 years, but if we look back at Antebellum America, or Ancient Greece, those societies were most probably much more polarized. In those societies, difference was often excluded from the public sphere until it erupted in violent conflict. The democratic assembly was relatively homogenous, and interests weren’t too significantly in conflict. White-male property owners disagreed much less on how to govern, and what counted as public reason. With the rapid inclusion and integration of marginalized groups, Western democracies are now faced with the deep pluralism of their public sphere, something they did not necessarily have to manage before. That being said, I don’t think that inclusion as such is responsible for what we see as the negative consequences of polarization, and especially for the rise of far-right discourses.

As I have just mentioned, inclusion might have led to an increased polarization of public discourse, because more diverse speeches and claims were included and heard in the public sphere, but I think this is a good thing. One of the tenets of deliberative democracy relies on the airing out of public disagreements. You can only attend to issues and grievances you are aware of, as a collective. What we often lament as “too strong polarization,” I think, might be rather linked to heinous speech or violent discourse, and a refusal to engage with the other on equal terms. Public discourse that denies the humanity of the other side. This is different, to me, from polarization understood as deep disagreement.

I believe that the main cause of this refusal to engage with the other on equal terms you observe in some democracies lies in the perpetuation of severe inequalities notwithstanding the greater extent of formal inclusion. I do not claim to know how to reconcile people that understand themselves as deeply opposed, people that are deeply aggrieved by recent political developments, but deliberative democracy suggests that dialogue, entered as equals and in good faith, can help with the type of antagonism some societies are experiencing in politics. In order for deliberative norms to become effective again, however, we need to attend to those severe inequalities, often entrenched in privileged interests, and create/maintain the forums for reasoned deliberation to happen.

Q: Another strand in the summer school focuses on how we can “mobilize democratic power.” What does that look like in the context of Indigenous reconciliation, climate action and other complex issues?

E C-T: One of the most important questions we want participants of the summer school to ask themselves is how to distinguish between the use of democratic and non-democratic power. How can we normatively distinguish the assault on the Capitol, for instance, from the Wet’suwet’en railroad blockades? Both are exercises in civil disobedience, both go against formal procedural democratic politics. Is the presence of “violence” sufficient to cast a movement as illegitimate? There are many ways in which power can be grown from the base, by people coming together: what makes it democratic? Its orientation to inclusivity and the common good? How do you determine that? To me, to mobilize democratic power is to act with others in a way that is consistent with democratic norms and values. This can be done in a variety of ways, and can even be opposed to other democratic forms of power. A formal state policy can be an exercise of democratic power, while the same could be true of a group of people sabotaging a pipeline on Indigenous territory in direct opposition to the state policy. Radical democracy is open to such tensions and competing claims of legitimacy, and to study it is to embrace unfixity, ambiguity and complexity.

Q: Creativity and futurity is another central strand of the summer school. How does art inform radically democratic forms of agency?

E C-T: On this theme, I have learned a lot from my colleagues on the organizing team, especially Tara Mahoney and Jesi Carson. To imagine that a different world is possible is the first step towards transformation. Without that first creative act of the imagination, we are stuck in a pretty drab and cold universe; radical democracy, as a process of transformation, is impossible. It is because we can imagine ourselves in a city without cars that we can think of getting out of the extraction and exploitation of oil, gas or lithium. It is because Indigenous peoples can imagine a decolonized/more just world that they act against the Canadian state on their territory. Radical democracy needs people who can think the world differently, who can see politics as a “pluriverse,” according to Arturo Escobar’s formula. What is real today is not inevitable. There is a multiplicity of possible universes to choose from, we need only to imagine which one we want and act to make it our own.

The arts allow us to breach the normalcy of everyday life and help us destabilize the status quo to imagine different futures. We want participants to the summer school to use their creativity to imagine what could be, not as a utopian picture of how things should be, with the green valleys and pastures of abundance associated with old and naive ideas of communism, but with an understanding that things remain in flux and that power will always play a role and will be necessary to act to attend to that universe.

Q: Can radical democracy make any difference when it comes to how the elites and ruling parties’ positions on war, trade deals, austerity, the militarization of police, prisons, government surveillance and assaults on social justice. As Chris Hedges says, “they have worked in tandem to destroy democratic institutions on behalf of the rich, selling arms, religion, and propaganda while negotiating lives and oil.”

E C-T: Radical democracy certainly gives us tools to start fighting back against political elites and entrenched power. Those theories often provide means by which ordinary people can reappropriate the “we the people,” means to grow power from the base and act together. Mouffe’s democratic paradox suggests that liberalism and popular sovereignty are in tension with each other, that by imposing norms of individual rights and freedoms on the ability of the people to act, we are in fact contradicting the idea that the people is the only one who can decide for itself. Radical democracy embraces that paradox in a lot of ways, but also attempts to constantly renegotiate it so that the status quo can be destabilized and changed. If certain norms of individual rights protect destructive industries and their political champions, then maybe those norms can be renegotiated somewhat, can be challenged from the ground-up. By opening up what can be contested, and by reinjecting vitality into what it means for the ordinary citizen to be able to act with others, radical democracy fragilizes elite rule. It doesn’t mean to get rid of experts, or of political representation, but it certainly aims at confirming the people as the true subject of politics.

Q: Attempts to achieve social, economic, and political justice play a role in nearly every critical problem we have today. But, unfortunately, there’s a division between people who want to change how we deal with an issue and those who don’t want to change. How does this program address this divide?

E C-T: Well, this is politics. This will always be the case in large and diverse polities. And I don’t think it is unfortunate. We’re not ants building up a nest, we’re humans trying our best to make sense of our world and disagreeing about what to do about it. But radical democracy unapologetically takes the side of those who want to change things. Unfixity is its motto, and it wants to mobilize this unfixity to transform societies for the better. In this, it mounts a direct opposition to those who want to change things for the worse, though how one judges of this distinction is certainly important, and those who want things to stay the same. The question of how to distinguish between democratic and non-democratic use of power that the participants will be asked to reflect on is central for this issue. But even inside the radical democracy umbrella, scholars and people disagree on what is the best possible world to fight for, and how to act to materialize it. That’s fine, that’s the struggle. There is no one good answer to those problems. Radical democracy accepts that, but it also thinks there are definitely better answers that others.

Q: UN Secretary-General says that we’re “sleepwalking to a climate catastrophe.” Paul Gilding thinks that “we should brace for impact,” Roy Scranton says, “we’re doomed” and that a large-scale biospheric collapse is already underway, accelerating our extinction.” Are the catastrophists right and are we too late to radicalize democracy?

E C-T: It’s never too late to radicalize democracy. In fact, radical democracy is probably the only way to operate a sweeping, inclusive and just transition to avoid the catastrophist scenario. If we don’t hang tight to democracy, those who will be managing the collapse will be tyrants and autocrats, and it will lead to even more inequality and widespread suffering than we are already on a path for. There will come a moment when we have to choose. Radical democracy gives us tools to make sure that when that moment comes, democracy is still a viable option.

Q: Capitalism is so deeply entrenched in our world view. Many hope that businesses will find the solutions we require to solve our many problems like climate change. Others argue that the world economy needs more government engagement and intervention and that the only morally supportable capitalism is a regulated one.

E C-T: What we need is more democratic political control over the economy and its processes. I am not a believer of the benefits of the invisible hand, especially to solve problems such as climate change. But scholars of radical democracy are also wary of the possibility that the state could be the main solution to those problems. Instead, they often highlight the benefits of decentralized and socialized models of economic development and management.

We can look to new collaborative economic models like Solid State Community Industries for business development that supports marginalized communities to create economic opportunities that are socially and environmentally sustainable. Participants in the summer school will also look at the idea of the commons as a different way of understanding goods and resources we share and co-construct together and how to democratically manage them. The commons model endeavours to transform the relationships of property, inserting itself between the public/private divide and rearticulating those categories. One of the examples of such an alternative model which the participants of the summer school will be asked to analyze is the Greek solidarity movement that saw the creation of things such as citizen-run health clinics after the 2011 recession. Those clinics were constituted and managed by citizens coming together, operating in the interstitial spaces between the public and the private, and provided real and much needed services to the local population.

Q: In Franz Fanon’s book, “The Wretched of the Earth” he states that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” and lays out a convincing argument for why decolonization and violence go hand in hand and dismisses non-violent resistance as the preservation of the capitalist, colonialist state. How do we navigate between a different kind of democracy or the preference by many to “burn it down”?

E C-T: I think that for the oppressed, violence is a legitimate response. I would never tell an individual or a people that has been oppressed and brutalized for years how to free itself from that violence. However, I think that, at least here in Canada, Indigenous decolonization, though it suggests a very radical transformation of the state and its processes, mostly rejects Fanon’s argument about physical violence against people. I think Indigenous peoples, and especially Indigenous women scholars and activists, are looking for a relational revolution, in a way, a transformation of the way we relate to each other and the world (with a strong emphasis on the land). To use violence as an answer to violence is not necessarily the most effective way to transform those relations, though it is always a possibility. This does not mean that Indigenous resistance and resurgence is all rose-coloured and peaceful, quite the contrary. In many ways, they are “burning it down.” Anyone who takes seriously the significance of the political cry “land back” knows that.




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