Situating the geographies of injustice in democratic theory

Barnett, Clive (2012). Situating the geographies of injustice in democratic theory. Geoforum, 43(4) pp. 677–686.



Post-Marxist and poststructuralist ontologies of the political have been important reference points for recent discussions of democracy in critical human geography and related fields. This paper considers the conceptual placement of contestation in a strand of democratic theory often denigrated by these approaches, namely theories of deliberative democracy informed by post-Habermasian Critical Theory. It is argued that this concern with contestation derives from a focus on the relationships between different rationalities of action. It is proposed that this tradition of thought informs a distinctively phenomenological approach to understanding the situations out of which democratic energies emerge. In elaborating on this phenomenological understanding of the emergence of political space, the paper proceeds in three stages. First, it is argued that the strong affinities between ontological conceptualisations of ‘the political’ and the ontological register of canonical spatial theory squeezes out any serious consideration of the plural rationalities of ordinary political action. Second, debates between deliberative and agonistic theorists of democracy are relocated away from questions of ontology. These are centred instead on disputed understandings of ‘normativity’. This move opens up conceptual space for the analysis of phenomenologies of injustice. Third, using the example of debates about transnational democracy in which critical theorists of deliberative democracy explicitly address the reconfigurations of the space of ‘the political’, it is argued that this Critical Theory tradition can contribute to a distinctively ‘topological’ sense of political space which follows from thinking of political action as emerging from worldly situations of injustice. In bringing into focus this phenomenological approach to political action, the paper has lessons for both geographers and political theorists. Rather than continuing to resort to a priori models of what is properly political or authentically democratic, geographers would do well to acknowledge the ordinary dynamics and disappointments which shape political action. On the other hand, political theorists might do well to acknowledge the limits of the ‘methodological globalism’ that characterises so much recent work on the re-scaling of democracy.

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