Johan Skytte poliitikauuringute instituut

Doctoral defence: Lelde Luik “Re-evaluating the role of representative institutions in radical democratic theory: lessons from democratic identity construction in Latvia”

On 30 January at 13:00 Lelde Luik will defend her doctoral dissertation “Re-evaluating the role of representative institutions in radical democratic theory: lessons from democratic identity construction in Latvia” for obtaining the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (in Political Science).

Professor Mark Devenney, University of Brighton (United Kingdom)

This dissertation contributes to the conceptual debate on political representation by identifying certain significant blind spots in post-foundational theory and illustrating this with an empirical case study of Latvia. It explores citizens’ alienation from and mistrust of their political representatives from radical democratic perspectives. Radical theorists view these issues as resulting from the crisis of neoliberal democracy and argue for the formation of new collective subjectivities that would challenge the existing hegemonies. A notable example of this position is Ernesto Laclau’s conceptualization of populism and the theory of hegemony he developed with Chantal Mouffe.

The dissertation critically examines the role of representative institutions in Laclau’s work, drawing on the case of Latvia, where continuous anti-government and pro-‘people’ discourse has not brought any substantial change to the political landscape. Instead, Latvian democratic identity construction is defined by the negation of representative institutions and the rejection of representation while embracing the democratic sovereignty of ‘the people’, to be achieved via direct democracy. Through a long-durée analysis of the discursive construction of the Latvian nation and state, I show how the political subjectivity of ‘the people’ has been constituted either in isolation or in direct antagonism to representative institutions such as the parliament, political parties, and the government. Latvia’s case confirms the widespread scepticism in democratic theory about direct democracy being a corrective to the ills of representative democracy. At the same time, it counters the criticism, typical for many radical democratic perspectives, of political institutions being instruments of liberal democracy. Instead, this study adopts Claude Lefort’s view of the democratic place of power (institutionally defined), and uses the case of Latvia to demonstrate the normative and practical value of institutions for the functioning and survival of democracy. The rejection of the representative ‘gap’ between the presumed unmediated presence of ‘the people’ and its embodiment through institutions complicates the construction of a democratic identity in Latvia. For Lefort, representative institutions are the key mechanism for explaining how this gap remains open.

The dissertation thus re-states and highlights the symbolic role of representative institutions in radical democratic theory. Furthermore, the dissertation opens new ways of thinking about democratic transition in the post-communist context. The dominant scholarly perspectives risk overstating the role of cultural and historical factors in Eastern Europe by assuming its hierarchal relation to Western democracies. The cultural specifics of the region can indeed help to understand its democratic discontents, but they must be viewed as shifting self-representations of identity, not

monolithic blocks that pre-determine political identities. Overall, the dissertation argues for a revitalized perspective on the symbolic role of institutions in democracy, which should consider the radical critiques of existing political systems and envision new forms of representative institutions to tackle the contemporary challenges to democracy.

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