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Book Reviews and Critical Notices

Review of Justo Serrano Zamora, Democratization and Struggles Against Injustice. A Pragmatist Approach to the Epistemic Practices of Social Movements

London and New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021
Camille Ferey
Bibliographical reference

Justo Serrano Zamora, Democratization and Struggles Against Injustice. A Pragmatist Approach to the Epistemic Practices of Social Movements, London and New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

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1It has become commonplace to talk about the “crisis” of democracies, to denote various current phenomena such as abstention, rise of authoritarian governments through electoral processes themselves, or a supposed inability of democratic institutions to address pressing problems like environmental issues. In response to such diagnoses, public discourses and philosophical theories of democracy have taken two main paths. On the one hand, criticisms of the intrinsic limits of democracy have emerged, pointing out its inherent inefficiency. As Justo Serrano Zamora argues in this book, this path usually leads to defend “restrictions in citizens’ participation or the substitution of experts for democratic representatives” (71). On the other hand, the diagnosis of democratic crisis has led to an endeavor to strengthen theoretical justifications of democracy. Democratization and Struggles Against Injustice falls within the latter. As the book relevantly remarks, these justifications of democracy, in turn, can be divided into two main trends. First, a set of “epistemic justifications” attempts at demonstrating democracy’s efficiency, that is to say its ability to generate good outcomes and to solve social problems (XVI). Secondly, a set of “intrinsic justifications” puts the emphasis on the value of democratic norms themselves, namely: inclusion, equality, freedom and self-determination (4). In the last decades, Pragmatism has played an increasing part in these debates, especially the Deweyan philosophy of democracy. Through a radical understanding of Dewey’s model of democracy, Zamora develops a fruitful and original contribution to these philosophical discussions, which sheds light on current political phenomena and issues.

2The book’s purpose is to defend a “mixed model of justification” – both epistemic and intrinsic – based on a pragmatist account of democracy (6). Hence, what is at stake is firstly the claim that democratic practices are the most likely to address social problems. Secondly, Zamora argues that endeavors to solve social problems can lead to deepen both the definition of democratic values and the scope of democratic practices. This account relies on a dynamic understanding of democracy, as an open set of values and practices that are transformed through the efforts of social struggles to identify and solve social problems. One of the most interesting aspects of such a “compatibilist” approach between democracy and “efficiency” (XIX, 157) is that while it takes seriously into account the epistemic task of politics – understood as its ability to solve injustices – it also avoids the main shortcomings of “a strictly scientistic understanding” of political efficiency (XX). Indeed, Zamora reminds us that “epistemic reasons have been mobilized de facto in order to justify political exclusion, to reduce the reach of democratic participation, or to limit the scope of issues about which democratic decisions should be made” (69). On the contrary, his Deweyan definition of social problems as situations of injustice and domination leads him to stress the link between efficiency and the deepening of democratic participation.

3Zamora’s book makes various significant contributions to social and political philosophy.

First, it is an original contribution to empirical philosophy, built upon a very challenging dialogue between conceptual arguments and empirical analyses of the very practices of social movements. It is worth noting the relevance of this methodological statement, as it embodies the Deweyan insight that democracy is not a set of principles, but rather a social dynamic that has to remain open to practical redefinitions.

4Secondly, the book’s bibliography is of special interest. Indeed, it develops insightful links between separate philosophical traditions such as Critical Theory, alternative epistemologies, deliberative accounts of democracy and public sphere, and the Honnethian theory of recognition. Moreover, the bibliography also provides an original perspective on Dewey’s work by making connections between the different areas of his philosophy, namely: epistemology, aesthetics, psychology, political and social philosophy. These connections entail original interpretations of crucial notions such as domination, emancipation, knowledge, and social struggles.

5Zamora’s original reading of Dewey is also at the heart of the third important contribution his book makes to the philosophy of democracy. Indeed, he uses Dewey’s experimentalism to analyze the logic and value of social movements, whereas, as he remarks, most “experimentalist approaches are oriented toward the analysis of institutionalized democratic practices” (128). Hence, drawing on a “practice-based account” of social movements, Zamora underlines “the innovative potential of collective practices” from the standpoint of deepening democracy (83, XIV). Thus, by stressing the part played by social movements in the historical development of democracy, Zamora convincingly argues that the studies of social movements might challenge main models of democracy, that is to say representative and deliberative models. Therefore, his book provides innovative arguments in favor of radical accounts of democracy.

6Consequently, the fourth important contribution of Democratization and Struggles Against Injustice is to provide insights into the understanding of current social movements. Through an original “Deweyan, inquiry-based approach to social struggles,” it focuses on their “epistemic practices,” that is to say on their efforts to identify, interpret and solve social injustices (XXI, XII). Such practices are analyzed as fostering the political articulation of personal experiences and the “generation of an oppositional consciousness” (115). Social movements are thus defined as collective actors holding a democratic “counter-hegemonic power” (73). This approach contrasts with main accounts of struggles as either sources of disorder, “mere providers of information” (XV), or expressions of a priori fixed needs and interests. Therefore, it provides an interesting framework for the analysis of current transformations within social movements’ claims, forms of organization, and modes of action. Such a framework enables Zamora to stress links between “feminist movements, LGTBIQ+ rights struggles, anticolonialist struggles, workers’ movements, as well as movements for alternative globalization(s) and for climate justice, […] students’ protests for better education, antiausterity movements, neighborhood organizations, internal worker struggles in economically strategic sectors, public struggle against the silencing of crimes committed by Latin American dictatorships” (XI).

7Zamora’s argument is organized in three parts.

In the first part, the author develops a theoretical reflection on democratic justifications. He first provides an outline of the different perspectives to be found in current debates. According to his remarkable typology, such debates are divided into two main strands, depending on the nature of the relationship they establish between epistemic and normative values: “[w]hile incompatibilist authors assume the presence of a (potential) tension between both, compatibilist authors believe that the realization of intrinsic values positively contributes to the other and conversely” (16). Drawing on the criticism of incompatibilism’s consequences – i.e.: authoritarianism and the reduction of the political sphere – Zamora elaborates his own compatibilist model, based on an original combination of Honneth and Dewey’s theories. Notably, he uses Dewey to amend the paradigm of recognition, which is considered as “overshadowing the problem-solving function as historically effective” (32). In other words, according to Zamora, the hermeneutical dimension of the concept of recognition leads Honneth to underestimate “the epistemic dimension of democracy as the generator of innovative transformations and deepening of existing understandings of democracy” (XIX).

8In the second part of the book, Zamora’s purpose is to show how this “problem-solving function” is assumed by social movements. Hence, drawing on Dewey’s experimentalist logic and his theory of social inquiry, Zamora highlights the contribution that social movements make to democratic deepening through their epistemic practices. This part also convincingly argues that democratic organization is a logical requirement to reach good outcomes. In order to highlight this link between democracy and problem-solving, the last chapter of this section analyzes a series of case studies, including consciousness-raising meetings, practices of popular assemblies, practices of “testimonio” in Latin-America, and workers’ inquiries on their working conditions in Italy. Although these examples are of utmost interest to illustrate and challenge the mixed justification of democracy defended in the first section, they also raise some questions about the nature and the extent of the “good outcomes” that can be expected from social movements (14). For instance, the chapter ends up underlining the “efficiency of the pizza bar” enabled by the horizontal democratic organization of a climate camp (158). This example invites us to question the very definition of the concept of “efficiency.” Zamora describes it as “based on a stable cooperation and strong communicative networks which made it easy for nonexpert individuals to spontaneously jump in” (158). Hence, the standard used to measure efficiency seems to be the nature of the cooperation rather than the outcome of the action. Can we still talk about an epistemic justification here? Are we to consider as equivalent all cooperative practices that fulfil their own goal, without taking into account their effects on domination and injustice on a broader scale?

9Finally, the last part of the book develops a critical phenomenology of social movements, that is to say a description of social situations that might either enable or block the emergence of experimentalist struggles. In particular, this section analyzes the effects of social domination on the very possibility of collective action. Domination is considered “from an epistemic point of view,” as partly relying on mechanisms of symbolic and cultural oppression (166). Conversely, emancipation is defined as a process “where the members of the oppressed group learn to see social reality as a resource – and not as a mere obstacle – for action” (173). This learning process, mainly endorsed by social struggles, is described thanks to the Deweyan concept of “act of expression” (166). Through such acts, Zamora argues, oppressed groups determine themselves and the social reality they live in, and they progressively change their “raw impulse” into reflexive and organized intentions (182). To further this relevant analysis of the epistemic conditions of collective action, it would also be of great interest to study Dewey’s theory of habits and their transformation, as it is developed, for instance, in Human Nature and Conduct.

10Let me finally suggest some discussion topics opened up by this innovative work. Indeed, some of the comparisons drawn between Dewey and more contemporary authors, such as Miranda Fricker or José Medina, are of great interest and could lead to further investigations and systematic theorization. As Zamora himself notices in the introduction of an issue of Pragmatism Today dedicated to Pragmatism and “subaltern knowledges”: “the role of Pragmatism in the pursue of alternative epistemologies has been only partially explored” (Zomora & Dunaj 2001: 5). For instance, the analysis of Medina’s concept of “resistant imagination” could be completed by his comparison with the Deweyan concept of “imagination” as it is notably defined in A Common Faith (115). Moreover, it would also be of utmost interest to analyze the Deweyan aspects of Medina’s epistemic account of oppression. Indeed, the idea of an “insensitivity” of the dominant group, understood as an “epistemic pathology” that strengthens domination, could be read as rooted in Dewey’s social epistemology. Regarding Fricker, Zamora’s criticism is also of great interest and therefore deserves further discussion. Indeed, he points out, following Medina, that Fricker somewhat underestimates the epistemic pathologies of dominant groups. We could wonder if this criticism withstands the distinction made by Fricker between epistemic “handicap” or “lacuna” on the one hand, and epistemic “disadvantage” on the other hand. Indeed, thanks to the example of sexual harassment, she argues that whereas “harasser and harassed alike are cognitively handicapped by the hermeneutical lacuna,” “the harasser’s cognitive disablement is not a significant disadvantage.” In other words, Fricker’s main argument may not be that the dominant has a greater knowledge of social reality. Rather, she argues that even though the dominant fails to correctly understand the latter, this epistemic pathology does not put him at a disadvantage, unlike the oppressed.

11To conclude, Zamora’s book makes a very significant contribution to the pressing analysis of the connection between democracy, efficiency, justice and social movements. Nevertheless, while it provides relevant empirical and theoretical arguments in favor of the existence of a “strong” connection between these elements, it also claims that such a connection is only “possible” and remains open to “empirical explorations” (82). In that perspective, what is left for social sciences and philosophy is to keep exploring the whole range of symbolic and material conditions needed to promote democratic “experimentalist” habits and struggles (159). In the framework of social philosophy, Zamora’s book is undoubtedly an important contribution to this task.

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Fricker Miranda, (2007), Epistemic Injustice. Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Medina José, (2013), The Epistemology of resistance. Gender and racial oppression, epistemic injustice and resistant imagination, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Zamora Just Serrano & Lubomir Dunaj, (2021), “Introduction: Pragmatism, Subaltern Knowledges and Critique,” Pragmatism Today, 12 (1), 5-7.

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Electronic reference

Camille Ferey, “Review of Justo Serrano Zamora, Democratization and Struggles Against Injustice. A Pragmatist Approach to the Epistemic Practices of Social MovementsEuropean Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy [Online], XIV-2 | 2022, Online since 17 October 2022, connection on 27 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Camille Ferey

Université Paris Nanterre

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