Democratic Revolts & "People Power": Paradoxes of Popular Sovereignty in Practice
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Level: Graduate
Division: The New School for Social Research
Department: Politics
Course Number: GPOL 5747
Course Format: Seminar
Location: NYC campus
Permission Required: No
  • Politics
  • Philosophy
  • Social Justice
In 2011, inspired, in part, by a series of avowedly democratic uprisings in the Arab world, the United States and several other countries experienced a spectacular series of ephemeral revolts organized by activists committed to prefiguring, through unexpected occupations of urban public spaces, a new world of egalitarianism and direct self-rule. After recalling some of the hopes aroused in 2011 by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and after examining the broader political and sociological context to these revolts, particularly through reading some of the recent work of Pierre Rosanvallon, this seminar will survey the origins of the modern democratic vision in the work of Rousseau and the experience of the political leaders and Parisian artisans who conceptualized, and experimented with, new forms of popular sovereignty û direct, representative, even autocratic û at the height of the French Revolution. The radical hopes of those years were kept alive and renewed in the nineteenth century, not least by Karl Marx is his paean to the Paris Commune of 1871. Thus evolved a tradition commemorated almost a century later by Hannah Arendt in her paradoxical book, On Revolution. In that influential work, Arendt tried to grapple with the terrible irony that the democratic insurrections of the eighteenth century, and then again those in Russia in 1917, were either colonized by political elites hostile to popular sovereignty, or drowned in blood, or both. One result was the rise of crippling doubts about the value and viability, in practice, of popular revolts and more participatory forms of democracy û doubts codified a century ago by influential proponents of a parliamentarian understanding of popular sovereignty and the rule of law, such as Hans Kelsen. Another, less visible result, was a continuing search for institutional forms that might enhance rather than restrict popular participation in politics and expand rather than constrict a society of equals while simultaneously promoting pluralism and the rule of law via imaginative new forms of delegated popular sovereignty (as witness the pioneering if generally neglected democratic schemes of Condorcet in 1793 and of G.D.H. Cole in 1920). Hence, too, the search in the twentieth century for new, explicitly non-violent approaches to "people power" and something like a "self-limiting" form of revolution. In the wake of the wintry aftermath of both the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, what have we learned about the global potential û and recurrent limits û of the radical democratic revolts that have punctuated modern political history?
Course Open to: Degree Students with Restrictions


Not open to Undergraduate students.