Inclusive representation: A radical democratic perspective

Paper given at the workshop « Ideas and Realities of Democracy », 3rd international workshop of the Civic Constellation project, Aland Islands Peace Institute, 26-27 September 2013.

The paper is based on an article published in French in Raisons politiques n°50, available here


Inclusive representation: A radical democratic perspective

Extended abstract (download here)


This paper is part of a larger project, in which I intend to rethink representation from a radical democratic perspective. I try to assess the ways in which representation can actually be used against the logics of representative government, as a way to construct a radical democratic alternative to our current political system. During the last Civic Constellation Project Seminar, I tried to show that the pluralisation of representation, i.e. the multiplication of non-sovereign representative institutions representing different aspects of our identities, was a way to rethink representation in a radical democratic project, against the unitary logics of representative government. In this paper, I discuss another way (complementary to the former): the defense of inclusive representation against exclusive representation.

Since representation is usually conceived as a way to make present something that is absent (Pitkin 1972, 8–9), it is often suspected of excluding the represented from the political sphere. As a result, most theories of democracy that emphasise equality and inclusion are based on a radical critique of political representation (Pateman 1970; Barber 1984). However, this great divide between representation and democracy causes numerous political, historical and theoretical problems. The point of this paper is to show that it is possible to go beyond this divide by modifying our understanding of representation. Indeed, representation can function in two different ways: it can be used to justify the monopolisation of political power by representatives – I call that exclusive representation. This is how representation works in representative governments. But it can also be used to justify the direct participation of the represented – I call that inclusive representation. According to an inclusive conception of representation, the fact that representatives speak and act in the name of the represented should support the claim of the represented to participate directly in politics. While exclusive representation has been massively studied, I want in this paper to give a few points about inclusive representation: what it is, how it can be justified, how it works, etc. In order to show the heuristic potential of this concept, I will distinguish between different types of inclusive representation, more or less compatible with representative government.


The first form of inclusive representation is what I call inclusive politicisation. It is actually a by-product of exclusive representation. Exclusive forms of representation create a division of labour between representatives and represented, and the former become, as Roberto Michels have proved, a class of professionals (Michels 1962). They develop a specific language, which by construction excludes the represented (Gaxie 1978). So the division of political labour entails exclusive forms of representation. Nevertheless, it also opens the possibility of a very specific form of inclusive representation: inclusion through the process of acquiring the language of the professionals, i.e. politicisation. When they acquire the political language of professionals, individuals can be included in political processes and have their voice heard. As we can see, this form of inclusive representation logically goes with exclusive representation, and a lot of authors (Hanna Pitkin, but also Franklin Ankersmit or Bernard Manin) have insisted on this double nature of representation. The contemporary revival of the theories of representation, which try to prove that representation is not opposed to participation (Plotke 1997) and is in fact intrinsically democratic (Näsström 2006), implicitly draw on this dialectical aspect. Representation excludes, but in the same time opens new possibilities for inclusion for those who acquire a language of professionals, in order for example to publicly judge their actions. However, this conception of inclusive representation has several problems, the most important being that it relies on a definition of politics entirely centred on the world of professionals – we could say a Schumpeterian vision of politics. But what about the forms of politicisation and the processes of representation that are not directly triggered by instituted representatives?


So here we have to distinguish between internal forms of inclusive politicisation – i.e. inclusion through the acquisition of the language of professional representatives to acquire a voice – and external forms of inclusive politicisation, which rely on the constitution of forms of representation outside of the institutions of representative government (maybe we can link it with strategies of exit if we want to use Hirschman’s typology). Here the constitution of a class of professionals is not enough to guarantee inclusion: external inclusive representation necessitates the construction of independent representative devices. They can be related to what Pierre Rosanvallon calls counter-democracy: counter-democratic devices are means for citizens to exert control, surveillance and judgment on representatives (Rosanvallon 2006). The important thing here is that these external means of politicisation go beyond the usual relation between representatives and their constituencies, and always leave open the possibility of a radical rupture between the world of representatives and the world of the represented (Urbinati 2005). These external devices though which the represented directly participates to politics are not necessarily devices of judgment; they can also be means for citizens to express their will. As such, participative democracy devices are not opposed to representation: they are places in which citizens speak and act in the name of the people, outside of the world of professional representatives.


As we can see, the institutional consequences of internal and external forms of inclusive politicisation are not at all the same. Internal inclusive politicisation happens no matter what, so it does not require specific institutionalisation. On the opposite, external forms of inclusive politicisation are much more demanding: they require specific devices though which the represented can acquire a voice independently from their institutional representatives. Nevertheless, these two forms of inclusive politicisation have an important common point: they both implicitly consider the exclusion of the represented as affecting all citizens, without considering their social characteristics. But the reality of exclusion is that while the vast majority of citizens are excluded from political decisional processes, this exclusion affects dominated groups in a very specific way. So we need to consider forms of inclusive representation that specifically deal with the exclusion experienced by dominated groups.


The works of Pierre Bourdieu on political representation insist on this specific exclusion experienced by dominated groups. Not only are they excluded as citizens by professionals, but they are also “condemned to delegation” (Bourdieu 1979, 484) as they are economically and culturally dispossessed of the means to have an autonomous voice. So we discover here a second meaning of inclusive representation, as the forms of representation specifically designed to include dominated groups. However, it is not enough to just have people speak for the dominated groups to ensure their inclusion: if the representation of dominated groups itself follows the logics of exclusive representation, then these groups will not be included, but doubly excluded, or included as excluded. So there is a need to institutionalise this specific representation, in order to make sure that dominated groups do not depend on representatives speaking and acting for them without any form of control. There are different ways to do that: one is to identify groups that should benefit from a specific representation and then give them a specific number of seats in the institutions of representative government – this is what is argued by advocates of group representation, founded on a descriptive view of representation (Phillips 1995; Mansbridge 1999). But it is also possible to promote a specific representation of dominated groups that is external to the institutions of representative government. For example, the French workers movement was initially based on the idea of an organisation outside the State – which gave birth to revolutionary syndicalism. So we can find here the same dichotomy between internal and external inclusion that we found in the previous conception of inclusive politicisation.


However, the problem of this conception of the inclusion of dominated groups is that it does not take into account the problems of groups that are not recognised as specific social groups. The groups do not necessarily exist before they are represented, which leads to a vicious circle: dominated groups are not represented, so they should have a specific representation, but since they are not represented no one can ask for this representation, etc. So we should take into account a specific form of inclusive representation that we may call inclusive subjectivation, in which spokespersons claim to represent a group that is not recognised as a group. According to Pierre Bourdieu or to Michael Saward, this conception of representation as an activity of group institution, for Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1984), or of claim-making, for Saward (Saward 2010), is fundamental to the understanding of representation. Without necessarily taking for granted their radical Hobbesianism, we can recognise that theses processes of subjectivation through representation can sometimes be necessary for dominated groups to be recognised, thus opening the way to their subsequent inclusion.


So we have shown than representation should not only be understood in an exclusive sense, as a way for representatives to justify the monopolisation of political power. There can be different forms of inclusive representation, in which the existence of a relation of representation justifies the direct participation of the represented. First, through inclusive politicisation, citizens can participate as represented citizens by acquiring the language of representatives to judge them. They can also set specific external means of representation to counterbalance the power of their institutionalised representatives. At a more macro level, dominated groups can be given specific means of inclusion, once again internal or external. Finally, inclusive forms of representation can be found in certain processes of inclusive subjectivation, through which new social groups are recognised. Beyond the different forms of inclusive representation, what is important here is that inclusive representation has different norms than exclusive representation. While exclusive representation focuses on the activity of the representative, a good representative being a representative who defends the interest of the represented, inclusive representation focuses on the activity of the represented. What defines good inclusive representation is the fact that the represented is actively involved, sometimes in an agonistic manner, in politics. From the point of view of inclusive representation, a system is representative only to the extent that the represented is directly present, through different means, between two elections. For that reason, inclusive representation could prove a useful tool for those who want to advocate a radically democratic transformation of representative governments.



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Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. La Distinction : critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

———. 1984. “Délégation et Fétichisme Politique.” Actes de La Recherche En Sciences Sociales (52-53): 49–55.

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Näsström, Sofia. 2006. “Representative Democracy as Tautology Ankersmit and Lefort on Representation.” European Journal of Political Theory 5 (3) (July 1): 321–342. 

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Rosanvallon, Pierre. 2006. La contre-démocratie : la politique à l’âge de la défiance. Paris: Éd. du Seuil.

Saward, Michael. 2010. The representative claim. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Urbinati, Nadia. 2005. “Continuity and Rupture: The Power of Judgment in Democratic Representation.” Constellations 12 (2): 194–222.


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