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ECPR Futures Lab 2020

A Pragmatist Perspective Towards Contemporary Agro-Food Governance: The European Public and its Problems

Civil Society
European Politics
Political Theory
Maarten Crivits
University of Ghent, ILVO
Maarten Crivits
University of Ghent, ILVO
Maarten Crivits
University of Ghent, ILVO

This paper explores some of the ideas of John Dewey in the light of discussing a political understanding of emerging issues and publics within the agro-food governance system. At the core of Dewey's pragmatic approach to democratic legitimacy lies the intellectual endeavor to consider interest participation as the accomplishment of a shared or conjoined activity. For Dewey, ‘interests’ cannot be reduced to its meaning acquired in liberal democracy, i.e. something that substitutes the people’s authority by the professional and secluded process of political interest articulation. Rather, democracy is primarily found in a ‘conjoint communicated experience’ within ‘a mode of associated living’. Only through contact with those engaged in different social practices and groups can new conditions to action become liberated.
More particularly, we adopt Dewey's formulation of a democratically organized 'public' as a process of collective problem solving by those whose interests are directly involved. According to Dewey, ‘a public’ comes into being when a new issue arises, consisting of all those who are involved in the direct and indirect consequences that characterize that issue. Consistent with his pragmatist philosophy, Dewey argues for a democratic system - its routines, policies, institutional design- ‘beyond the ballot’ in which public debate, expert deliberation as well discursive interactions within empowered space (e.g. elected politicians in the European parliament) are geared towards addressing solutions for public issues.
This pragmatist approach offers a fresh perspective towards democratic participation within the dynamic political arena of the European Agro-food governance context. At first, a problem-solving democracy seems to be in sharp contrast with the party political and neo-corporatist arrangements that dominate European policy making processes. However, further insight into the discursive processes of the CAP reform show how actor categorizations and emerging public issues are often framed along the lines of collectively solving problems. We reflect on how tensions between acquired institutional arrangements and discursive strategies can be interpreted as a way to understand how top-down policies cope with the increasing diversity of issues and constituencies within the agro-food system.
Second, we analyze ongoing ‘grassroots’ activities related to the continuance and establishment of a European food commons from a Deweyian perspective. Characteristic to the political identity of these types of initiatives is that they eschew a politics of representation and rather propone a contributive logic. As collective arrangements to manage resources in a useful way for all members of a community, European food commons embody a ‘reservoir of governance systems’ in which a myriad of stakeholders (farmers, nature conservationists, citizens, tourism, local governments, etc.) are engaged in practice. Although this political identity remarkably coincides with Dewey's problem-solving approach to democratic legitimacy, contemporary inquiry points towards a lack of political self-awareness as well as a lack of acknowledgement in terms of the political relevance for the European Policy making process. Based on ongoing results from a research project on agricultural parks and customary commons in Europe we analyze how these empirical examples of alternative governance translate into the European Rural Development Policy.
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