Sofia Näsström

Professor at Department of Government, Faculty

+4618-471 6127
Visiting address:
Östra Ågatan 19
753 22 Uppsala
Postal address:
Box 514
751 20 UPPSALA

Short presentation

Sofia Näsström specialises in political theory. Recent publications include The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal (Oxford University Press 2021) and Demokrati. En liten bok om en stor sak (Historiska Media 2021). Her next monograph is entitled Democracy and the Social Question: Sharing Uncertainty in Uncertain Times. Näsström is the recipient of the DISA prize, and member of the advisory board of the ZEIT Foundation's new PhD program Uncertainty. See CV and Research below.

Keywords: political philosophy democratic theory • social theory and social change history of ideas political theory

See CV.

My research focuses on the difference between political lifeforms (in Montesquieu's sense of the term), and I have published a monograph on this topic, entitled The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021). I am currently working on a new monograph, Democracy and the Social Question: Sharing Uncertainty in Uncertain Times. For descriptions of the two books, and a sample of representative publications, see below.

I recently published a trade book on democracy in Swedish - Demokrati. En liten bok om en stor sak (Lund: Historiska Media, 2021) - which is contracted with the literary agency Bonnier Rights for translation.

Democracy and the Social Question: Sharing Uncertainty in Uncertain Times (forthcoming)

Sofia Näsström

The future of democracy is more uncertain than ever. While this experience of uncertainty can serve as a potential for democratic reform and renewal, it can also be mobilised for authoritarian purposes. How do we make it work for democracy rather than against it?

In order to recreate confidence in the future of democracy it is not enough to support rule of law and elections. One must also pay attention to “the social question”. Modern democracy draws much of its attraction from the promise it holds out of eradicating poverty and reducing social and economic inequality. It carries the hope of a better life, and ignoring that hope makes it vulnerable to exploitation by those seeking its demise. To make present-day uncertainties about the future work for democracy rather than against it, it is vital to integrate the social in the concept of democracy.

This book revisits democratic theory with this salient task in mind. It takes issue with the surprising yet familiar fact that many political theorists are reluctant to include the social in the concept of democracy. Haunted by the spectre of twentieth century socialism, they argue that it is antithetical to democracy; it satisfies material needs at the expense of political freedom, it confuses democracy with the ideological substance of politics and/or it reduces democracy to bureaucracy.

The book demonstrates that while each argument raises an important dilemma for those who seek to address the social question in democratic terms, it simultaneously relies on an overly reductionist conception of democracy—ideational, procedural and discursive respectively—unable to speak to present debates on the future of democracy. The positive argument is that by redefining democracy as a political lifeform that pivots on uncertainty, it is possible to integrate the social in the concept of democracy without falling prey to said dilemmas. Experiences of uncertainty can elicit calls for democratic reform and renewal.

The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021)

Sofia Näsström

Democracy is challenged by populism and elitism, as well as by the resurgence of new forms of authoritarianism. The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal argues that while we have good reasons to worry about the corruption of democratic practices and ideals, these worries are often attributable to questionable assumptions about what democracy is. Drawing on Montesquieu's classical work on the spirit of the laws, the book reconceives how we understand and conceptualize modern democracy: from sovereignty to spirit.

According to Montesquieu, different political forms are animated and sustained by different spirits: a republic by virtue or love of country and law, a monarchy by honour and distinction between classes, and a despotic form by fear. Montesquieu did not live to see the birth of modern democracy in the revolutions in the late eighteenth century.

This book argues that modern democracy is a sui generis political form animated and sustained by a spirit of emancipation. More specifically, the argument is twofold. First, with the removal of divine, natural, and historical authorities as collective sources of political legitimacy there arises a fundamental uncertainty about the future. In a democracy, we respond to that uncertainty by sharing and dividing it equally; both the freedom it opens up, and the responsibility it entails. It emancipates us from a state of self-incurred tutelage, i.e. from having the basic purpose and direction of society decided for us. Second, and precisely because the future is uncertain, we grant ourselves the freedom to fail in our judgements and decisions, and begin anew. This is a distinctively democratic conception of freedom that ought to be separated from liberal and republican ones (i.e. freedom as non-interference, autonomy and non-domination).

Based on this argument, the book develops a new theoretical framework for studying the corruption, disintegration and renewal of democracy; what it is, how it begins and where in society it plays out.

Selected publications:

The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal (Oxford,UK: Oxford University Press, 2021).

"Democratic Self-Defense: Bringing the Social Model Back In", Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 2021.

Demokrati. En liten bok om en stor sak (Lund: Historiska Media, 2021).

"A Democratic Critique of Precarity", Global Discourse (2015), Vol. 5, Issue 4: 556-573. Co-authored with Sara Kalm. Access here.

"Democratic Representation beyond Election", Constellations (2015), Vol. 22, Issue 1: 1-12. Abstract

"The Right to have Rights: Democratic, not Political", Political Theory, (2014) Vol. 32, No 5: 543-568. Abstract.

"Where is the Representative Turn Going?", European Journal of Political Theory (2011), Vol. 10, No 4: 501-510. Abstract.

"The Challenge of the All-Affected Principle", Political Studies (2011). Vol. 59, Issue 1: 116-34. Abstract.

"The Legitimacy of the People", Political Theory, (2007), Vol 35, No 5: 624-658. Abstract.

"Representative Democracy as Tautology: Ankersmit and Lefort on Representation", European Journal of Political Theory, (2006), Vol. 5, No 3: 321-342. Abstract.

The An-Archical State. Logics of Legitimacy in the Social Contract Tradition, (Stockholm: Department of Political Science, Stockholm Series in Politics 99, 2004).

"What Globalization Overshadows", Political Theory, (2003), Vol. 31, No. 6: 808-834. Abstract.

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Sofia Näsström