Facing the problems, learning the lessons

01 September 2008

Everywhere – from Brazil to Britain, from Barcelona to Berlin – the reality behind the language of ‘participation’ is contested, complex and contradictory. To encourage and support participatory democracy, a political party has to lead processes of experimentation, critical reflection and challenge, through which people are able to educate themselves to become subjects and therefore knowing actors.

A contested idea

Everywhere – from Brazil to Britain, from Barcelona to Berlin – the reality behind the language of ‘participation’ is contested, complex and contradictory. On the one hand, there is a growing demand for stronger democratic control over public resources, for political transparency, for an end to corporate-funded politics, and in general a rising disaffection with the old political elites. ‘Recycle the political class,’ declares graffiti in the metro station near the offices of El Viejo Topo in Barcelona, summing up the mood of the times.

This mood is evident in the spread of participatory budgeting and other forms of participatory democracy in local authorities across the world; it’s demonstrated by widespread resistance to privatisation usually in the name of democratic control; it’s indicated by the active support of young people who are becoming politically active for the first time for Obama.

On the other hand, though, this desire to deepen democracy has been taking place in parallel with a process by which governments pursuing market-led politics – whether they are parties historically of the left like New Labour or explicitly neoliberal parties – have been dismantling the social responsibilities of the state and handing them over to the market. They have been doing so with the language of ‘decentralisation’ and ‘localism’ – even, in the case of the Porto Alegre politicians who replaced the Workers Party, ‘solidarity governance’. (See box)

Historical roots

These conflicting trends are evident too in the ambivalent nature of the non-state public (or quasi-public) spheres that are emerging in many cities across the world. On the one hand, citizens’ organisations and social movement networks are creating increasingly interconnected sources of non-state democratic power – around housing, childcare, waste and other environmental issues, the needs of young people, the situations facing immigrants, and so on. Where the political leadership of the municipality is open to political innovation and sharing power, these civil society organisations have been the basis of experiments in participatory democracy.

At the same time, though, as many municipalities, regional and national governments subcontract the welfare of the population to private businesses, charities and NGOs, there is the growth of another kind of non-state but quasi-market sphere: one associated with a way of delivering social services that is more accountable to shareholders, chief executives and management boards than to local citizens.

These two sets of conflicting trends have historical roots that it is useful to understand, in order to map out the new terrain of struggles for democracy in the 21st century. These conflicts have their roots in the in the 1960s and 1970s, when pressures to go beyond the elite democracy of the cold war years reached boiling point, and the elites themselves, through the Trilateral Commission (a kind of international committee of US, European and Japanese elites) effectively declared ‘enough’ (or, actually, ‘too much’). They commissioned a report in 1975 that declared a ‘crisis of governability’, in which the authors concluded that at the root of the crisis was not too little democracy, but too much.

Democracy was overloaded with claims, rights, and demands for participation, the report argued. Over 30 years later, its solutions have an uncanny familiarity: moving as many activities as possible from the state to the market, from the public to the private, from the political to the technical, from popular participation to a ‘government of experts’ – especially from the business world. This, combined with the example of the CIA, US government and the free market ‘Chicago boys’ in Chile, set off a concerted and often violent process of destruction of these sources of democratic pressure that has lately been well documented by Naomi Klein.

The renewed pressures today for more direct forms of democracy indicate that although neoliberal governments inflicted dire political, economic and human defeats on these earlier movements for democracy, they were not successful in eliminating the democratic imagination and self-confidence that was born in the late 1960s. Over the past decade or so, people have been regrouping to find new ways of working for democracy, often with stronger, more sustainable institutional designs, inspired by a radically democratic politics that was on the rise in Latin America just as it was being defeated in Europe.

Beyond telling stories

On the new political terrain, where renewed movements for democracy are facing down the state and market institutions of the neoliberal counter-revolution, the old political strategies of the left have to be radically rethought. Are there lessons we can draw from the experiences of participatory democracy so far? How do we move beyond celebrating and telling the stories of the best examples, especially since these examples are facing difficulties from which we must learn? One very clear step already being taken, as part of the resistance to privatisation, is to develop practical strategies for democratising the internal management of the public sector.

Participation in setting budgets or in planning the use of land can only have a limited effect while services and resources are still managed through hierarchical and secretive systems that stifle the creativity of public service staff in their relationship with the public.

The public sector – but not as you know it

Recently, in Newcastle, UK, a trade union-led campaign managed not only to defeat of the privatisation of the council’s IT infrastructure, but also to create a new form of public management whose whole ethos is based on eliminating hierarchy, involving the staff at every level, and making the whole administrative system transparent and porous to democratic pressures. This required a strategically-minded public sector trade unionism that was prepared to insist on the council preparing its own bid for the services against a private business competitor, and then prepared to work with management to involve staff in redesigning the services (on the condition that there were no compulsory redundancies).

A further important lesson is the need to consolidate an explicitly dual strategy: to strengthen democratic sources of power independent of the state while, at the same time, opening up state institutions so that more direct and day-to-day forms of democracy have real control over public resources.

Democratic autonomy

The experience of participatory budgeting (PB) in Seville provides an important example of the development of an autonomous ‘self-regulated’ sphere of citizens’ democratic participation. The Seville process is very consciously a process of co-management, and the autonomy of the citizens’ budgetary process is therefore a condition for that co-management to be genuine.

Javier Navescués, an advisor to the process from left-wing think tank FIM, explains their thinking: ‘it is important for the people to be able to deal with the state on an equal ground.’ He adds that the process is changing people: ‘people do not remain the same’. I ask him about the fear that popular participation will strengthen reactionary and selfish views. It was a fear he shared, but in his experience, ‘people’s reactionary side is not reinforced – in fact, the opposite’.

He gave an interesting example of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group whose project had to be debated in a neighbourhood assembly dominated by gypsies with strong machista traditions. The LGBT group put their proposals to the neighbourhood assembly, and there was a strong argument, but it was agreed. ‘The LGBT group told me that they would never normally have talked to these people. As a result of the PB process, they reached more people than ever before. The result of the process has been overwhelming support, and now far more of the project is being put into practice than they ever thought possible.’

Recycle the political class

The other side of the process is the role of elected representatives within the state – mainly we are talking about municipalities – who are sympathetic to participatory democracy, in that they want to open up political institutions to the knowledge and power of extraparliamentary democracy.

Here, the experience of Anna Pizzo in the Lazio region around Rome is instructive (see article on page 7). Describing her attitude to what she can do as an elected representative, she says: ‘I can only be a tool for the movements, and when they want to raise something I try to open up a table or create a space to bring them into the political institutions to get their demands met. On the other hand,’ she explains, ‘when the institution wants to do something, I work to ensure that it’s not just a matter of hearing the movements, but of working with them to write legislation.’

Rethinking leadership

It’s a modest statement, but very significant. It implies a radically different notion of being a ‘representative’ to that of the traditional politician – including many politicians on the left – who see themselves in a special and separate political category: as leaders rather than servants, on too high a level to collaborate with those struggling in the institutions of everyday life. Moreover, the idea of ‘opening up a table’ and ‘creating a space’ effectively – if we generalise it – points to the importance of the ‘participatory left’ having programmes of radical institutional reform: measures such as rights of popular participation in the development of legislation and in the monitoring of its execution; transparency and freedom of information; stronger mechanisms of accountability; and so on.

The left has often spurned constitutional reform, perhaps initially on the overly-optimistic grounds that popular movements will somehow move beyond existing representative institutions – and the answer is not to swing the other way, believing that all we hope for is minor institutional reform, achieved from the inside. But we must recognise that the shape of most of our present democratic institutions are a product not simply of the vote, but also of the ways that the political elites reacted to the mass franchise and then to the threat of communism: by devising constitutional forms, explicit and implicit, that mediate popular pressures, so that, in the end, even the loudest, most militant campaigns could be reduced to the sound of mice.

For change to take place, we need to cut away these protections and mediations and build on the ways people are organising directly to create pressure for change – to give these struggles more direct political expression. Such a dual strategy sees us working within the institutions to open and transform them – as far as is possible – but always from a powerful base of democratic power, autonomous of the state. This raises the question: what kind of political organisation can give a lead to such a combined process, and, in fact, what does leadership in this context even mean? There’s no answer that can be ‘read off’ the practice.

Rethinking political organisation

In Seville, the political leadership lies with independent activists and a minority (within the party) of like-minded activists, within a broader and more traditional left party. In Lazio it is mainly independent activists supported by Rifondazione Communista. The only case of a party which, at least in Rio Grande do Sul, put its full weight behind participatory democracy is the Brazilian Workers Party. Its leadership and ethos was an essential condition for the participatory budget process of Porto Alegre – but its limits after 15 years in office contributed to its defeat in 2004 (see box). What can be learnt from this experience? It’s a vital question, given that there is now world-wide interest in participatory budgeting if not participatory democracy in a more general sense, and yet its political conditions for its success are rarely discussed.

A good starting point for a discussion of this question of the role of political parties is the description which Olivio Dutra, a leading member of the Workers Party in Porto Alegre, gave of the underlying purpose, and presumption, of participatory democracy: to enable people ‘to become the subjects of policy rather than the object of policy.’ Political parties, as have we generally known them, have always assumed that their task is to win office and carry out change for, or on behalf of, the people. The notion of people as objects of policy is built into their political mentality.

Citizens as knowing subjects

What must a political organisation be like – or what kind of political leadership is necessary – for people to become the subjects of policy rather then the objects of policy? A long discussion!

‘Knowing is the task of subjects, not objects,’ said Paulo Freire, who comes nearer than anyone to being a philosopher of participatory democracy. ‘Knowledge necessitates the curious presence of subjects confronted with the world,’ he continues, ‘it requires their transforming action on reality; it demands a constant searching, it demands invention and reinvention. It claims for each person a critical reflection on the very act of knowing.’

At the risk of cutting a long argument short: to encourage and support participatory democracy, a political party has to lead processes of experimentation, critical reflection and challenge, through which people are able to educate themselves to become subjects and therefore knowing actors. It’s not easy to think of a party which has given up its monopoly of political knowledge and become more of an emancipatory educator. Freire’s thinking is the theoretical cultural underpinning of the PT’s commitment to participatory democracy, but perhaps one of the problems behind the slackening of its pace of innovation and political development is that the PT did not follow through the logic of Freire’s radical epistemology for the process of participatory budgeting itself, as a sphere through which people potentially became subjects and therefore knowing actors.

To have led PB in this way, catalysing a process of popular self-education as part of its development, would have required a deeper notion of sharing power beyond simply sharing decision-making. It would have involved consciously working to create a culture and develop the capacities for sharing leadership, sharing the development of a collective process of self-consciousness and knowledge – all the features of emancipatory education about which Freire writes, translated into a profound democratisation of politics. For a political party, even one as innovative as the PT, that would have been difficult, especially once it embedded itself in government.

As I write, there are signs that a process of critical but practical reflection is being constructed independently of the PT, but in close connection with those working for renewal within it. What is especially significant is that it is a process of challenge and problematisation which is appropriately international, given the transnational influence of this remarkable but faltering experiment. Cidade and others, including the Transnational Institute and activists from Seville, have created a ‘Popular Sovereignty Network’, as an opportunity for critical reflection closely tied to involvement in current experiments in participatory democracy – for details of this network see www.ongcidade.org. In this way, we in Europe stick with the experience of Porto Alegre – not just as an inspiration and example, but also as a source of difficult questions and challenges which could deepen our knowledge and capacity to deal with the complexities that face us.