If participative democracy is the answer, what is the question?
‘Citizens’ participation’ is a fashionable political concept, but one that increasingly means all things to all people. It is time to reclaim ‘participation’ from those who would use it simply to legitimise existing political institutions, argues Joan Subirats. We should work, instead, at the boundaries of those institutions, creating spaces of political autonomy that interact with, challenge and ultimately transform them in the interests of a more egalitarian democracy.
Citizens’ participation is often spoken of as an answer, without it being clear what the question is. It is variously used to explain actions that seek to improve the legitimacy of public institutions, and to express the claims of bodies and associations that demand a greater role in the decision-making process. There is also talk of citizens’ participation as a way to improve the drawing-up and implementation of public policies, or as an embryo for new ways of conceiving the exercise of power in a community. This emphasis on participation has found its way onto the political agenda of many countries, taking a variety of forms. Its progress has even been accompanied by the appearance of participation specialists and consultants, and a new milieu of university research.
Thus, a veritable public policy for citizens’ participation has been developed ‘within’ representative democracy that seeks to complement it, making up for the characteristic faults that form part of the normal functioning of consolidated democracies. This form of politics does not seek to replace the established channels of representative democracy, nor the accountability mechanisms that have been institutionally set, but rather, to increase these institutions’ legitimacy and ability to respond. This at a time when the shortcomings of a strictly formal and representative view of politics are becoming more obvious than ever, revealing the existence of a ‘low-intensity democracy’ within a new scenario of economic globalisation.
From the old institutions...
Over the last few years, the ability of citizens to influence government actions has been decreasing. With this growing disempowerment, democracy has lost a considerable portion of its legitimacy, with only its formal and institutional characteristics remaining intact. Public authorities are increasingly less able to influence economic activity while, on the other hand, corporations continue to influence and exert pressure on institutions. They do not possess the same mechanisms for balancing this game that they had in the past.
Political parties and large trade unions are becoming increasingly incorporated into the state fabric. They recognise the signs of disconnection and disaffection among citizens, but they are trying to find new paths for survival. Social movements caught in this bind are finding that they must either strengthen their ties with formal institutions, risking a clientalist relationship, or strive to find alternatives outside of the conventional political playing field.
As citizens grow more sceptical about formal political institutions, their relationship to politicians and institutions is changing too. Many now see this connection as a more utilitarian, disposable one, with little hope of achieving genuine influence or ‘authentic’ interaction.
In this context, how can democracy be restructured to recover some of the transformative, egalitarian and participatory aspects that it used to have? How can we move beyond a democracy that is utilitarian, formalist, and minimalist, and that conceals the deep inequalities and exclusions that still exist? How can we conceive of a democracy, in other words, that is better able to respond to the new economic, social and political challenges that we face today?
... to the new politics
To address these challenges, we should take stock of experiences that have managed to generate spaces of ‘new institutionality’ – that is, spaces that can achieve institutional strength and legitimacy, but without stifling the creative and innovative capacities of citizens. The aim of these new forms of organisation is to aid the reconstruction of social bonds, by articulating the collective sentiments of those who participate in them while at the same time remaining respectful of individual autonomy.
In this sense, the strengthening of community involvement in the drawing-up and implementation of public policies is vital, but this should not stop simply at the local level. There is a need, too, for networks and platforms that enable the linking of local experimental frameworks with one another, allowing cross-fertilisation, reflecting on the practices that have been undertaken in different places. Through such a framework of networked participation, we may begin to see the consolidation of those social experiences that seem merely resistant to the dominant politics of individualisation into a clearer set of alternatives.
The basis of such a shift arises from a series of ‘new social dynamics’, building on a combination of resistance (born out of political mistrust in institutional initiatives that lack legitimacy); dissidence (which gives expression to different ways of understanding what governance is capable of, and means of conflict resolution that exist on the margins of conventional spaces); and impact (understood as concrete pressure for the reformulation of existing institutional initiatives). With these elements as a starting point, it is possible to work (not without contradictions, but not without some advances either) on a new institutionality, paving the way for a more confident and less defensive expression of citizens’ participation.
If this new institutionality is to emerge – combining representative democracy and participative democracy within the perspective of egalitarian democracy – it will do so through work in this border terrain, at the intersections between institutions and social movements. Pure experimentation is not enough, but neither is a form of ‘citizens’ participation’ that merely seeks to improve the ‘communication’ and ‘synergy’ between institutions and society without transforming those institutions. It is not simply a matter of challenging conventional politics, but rather of working at the limits of what is conventional to create new spaces of autonomy. In stregthening the autonomy of social actors, such work will have to be ‘useful’, but not simply in a utilitarian or instrumentalist sense of that term.
Ultimately, citizens’ participation has to be about more than simply ‘improving’ or patching up the institutions that already exist. We are facing problems of structural change and growing social complexity, and they need to be tackled in equally structural and complex ways. In creating experiences of egalitarian democracy, we should be guided by a perspective that envisages an alternative to the model of society that is currently prevalent. In so doing, we should not overlook the importance of interpersonal relations, of how people co-exist in such spaces, and how these new relations can themselves be transformatory. It is not just a matter of talking about transformation, but rather, of feeling and experiencing different ways of living together that, while defending the spheres of individual autonomy, also build up a collective sensibility. This would generate dynamics of personal responsibility and involvement in the processes of change, going beyond the logic of ‘delegating’ problems that is predominant today.