The Dispersion of Power: Thinking Democratically in the 21st Century

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Bagg, Samuel Ely


Knight, Jack

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This dissertation identifies a logic of “equal agency” at the heart of a great deal of contemporary thinking about politics. Scholars and citizens alike, I claim, often use some version of this logic in trying to understand what is valuable about liberal and democratic institutions. As a way of thinking democratically at the highest level, however—as a comprehensive principle for organizing our various practical and theoretical commitments, understanding the nature and value of democracy, and orienting ourselves towards a democratic future—I believe that it is deeply flawed. This dissertation demonstrates why such an alternative is needed, and proceeds to articulate one: the dispersion of power.

The introduction lays out the scope and methods before giving a chapter outline and a summary of the dissertation’s contributions. Chapter one gives an account of the logic of equal agency, demonstrating its pervasiveness in political theory and its reliance on an ideal of individual subjectivity. Chapter two employs contemporary biology and cognitive science to support Foucault’s critique of subjectivity, and chapter three demonstrates that this should lead us to abandon the logic of equal agency more generally. Chapter four articulates conceptions of agency and power that are compatible with Foucault’s critique, and chapter five demonstrates how we might “think democratically” using these concepts within a logic of dispersing power. Chapter six links a crisis in contemporary democratic theory to the logic of equal agency and suggests that the dispersion of power can help to resolve it; a promise that is followed up in chapter seven. Chapter eight concludes by employing the logic of dispersing power to advocate for a universal basic income.





Bagg, Samuel Ely (2017). The Dispersion of Power: Thinking Democratically in the 21st Century. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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