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This is an in-person event at King’s College London. Obtain your complimentary tickets here

About the talk:

The paper analyses how the direct appeal to the people, which at the time was referred to interchangeably as ‘referendum’ and ‘plebiscite’, was discussed in France from 1848 to 1852. It is indeed during the Second Republic that the idea of directly involving the people in the law-making process becomes a concrete proposal and a political reality, also thanks to the introduction of universal male suffrage. The referendum is extensively debated by socialist thinkers such as Proudhon, Rittinghausen and Considerant to argue that political representation is, in fact, not democratic and that a truly socialist republic would require a sharp distinction between legislation and administration and the consequent direct involvement of the people in law-making through their participation in local assemblies tasked with both drafting and approving legislative proposals of general import. And yet, if socialists theorized democracy as demanding popular legislation, the referendum appealed also to a completely different political project, i.e. the imperial ambition of Louis Napoleon. The latter took inspiration from his uncle to bypass parliamentary politics and argue that democracy, to be real, needed to be based on the direct connection between the head of the executive, the president, and the people. And the best way to guarantee this form of direct representation was the plebiscite, as it alone could offer the strong legitimacy that democratic governments need in modern mass politics. These competing understandings of democracy, as theorized through debates about the referendum in the mid-nineteenth century, foreground some of the fundamental challenges of representative politics and question the role of knowledge and expertise in legitimizing democratic procedures in the age of mass politics.


River Room, Strand Campus, King’s College London.

About the Speaker:

Lucia Rubinelli is Assistant Professor in Political Science. Before joining Yale, she held positions as Junior Research Fellow in the History of Political Thought at the University of Cambridge, Robinson College and as Fellow in Political Theory at the London School of Economics.

Her primary research interests include the history of nineteenth and twentieth century political thought, political theory, and constitutional theory. Her work explores the variety of ways in which the principle of popular power has been articulated during the French Revolution and after. ‘Her first book, Constituent power. A History, published by Cambridge University Press in 2020, offers a history of the language of constituent power in relation to ideas of national and popular sovereignty. It mainly focuses on how Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès’ first theorisation of pouvoir constituant has been used and misused by subsequent theorists, among whom Carl Schmitt, legal scholars in the post-war period, and Hannah Arendt. In her next research project, Lucia will explore how nineteenth century debates about the referendum travelled into the twentieth century in Europe.

Lucia regularly comments on Italian politics on Talking Politics Podcast and has recently been interviewed by the New Books Network podcast and the Intellectual History Archive about her book. She has written for The New York Times and a piece came out for Prospect Magazine.