What are the promising new models of democratic participation?

05 February 2010

The institutions that are supposed to reproduce daily life are incapable of acting on behalf of the people any more, so we need to produce our own institutional alternatives based on micro-experiments and universal values.

If you want to learn the nitty-gritty about social transformation in our times — What works and what doesn’t? How exactly does market culture subvert change? What are the promising new models of democratic participation? — one of your first stops should be the London office of Hillary Wainwright, the British feminist, sometime-academic, magazine editor and activist.

Wainwright is that rare bird who combines personal reportage with political theorizing, and movement journalism with a fierce independence and insight — all in highly readable style.

Wainwright was born to a politically active family in the 1940s (her father, Richard Wainwright, was a Liberal Member of Parliament), and attended Oxford University in the late 1960s, graduating in 1970. She came of age with the women’s movement, worked with trade unionists and socialists, founded the influential independent left magazine, Red Pepper, and has written a number of acclaimed books that probe the deep dynamics of democratic change.

Wainwright has effectively been a commoner for decades, mostly in the guise of an academic sociologist and activist-journalist. But she is no ideologue or policy wonk; Wainwright prefers to nose around the messy frontiers of movement politics to learn what is animating new democratic possibilities. Theory has its place in her world, but only if firmly grounded on closely observed, empirical realities.

A classic in Wainwright’s oeuvre of political journalism and commentary is her account of the “participatory budgeting” process pioneered by the City of Porto Alegre, Brazil. In a lengthy chapter her 2004 book Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy (updated and re-issued in paperback this month), Wainwright describes in great detail how Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), under the leadership of the city’s mayor, Olívio Dutra, opened up the budgetary process to all citizens. At one point, some 40,000 people in Porto Alegre participated in plenary sessions to help decide how municipal revenues would be spent.

While Wainwright clearly applauds the participatory-budgeting experiment, she is also willing to ask the hard questions, like, Why did the participatory budgeting process decline in the years since 2004, when the Workers’ Party in Porto Alegre lost the mayorship? Why did he lose the mayorship and what does this experience tell us about the relation of political parties to particpatory democracy? How can a “non-state public sphere” such as citizen assemblies continue to be taken seriously and share power with the state?

She offers a variety of complex and subtle explanations, but aptly compares the challenge of participatory budgeting to “riding a bike over difficult terrain — you have to keep pedaling simply to stay upright and maintain your sense of direction.”

Wainwright is no armchair pundit. She expends a lot of shoe leather in studying innovations in social change. She has ventured to the smaller towns of Britain, for example, to learn how ex-squatters joined with local vicars and residents to gain control of public resources. She went to Italy and Spain to explore modest experiments in popular democracy there. She has studied how trade unionists in Norway and the city of Newcastle in the North of England successfully fought privatization and put forward their own innovative models for social services.

Although primarily an activist, Wainwright keeps a foothold in academic institutions, recognizing their potential importance in building the commons. For example, the International Center for Participatory Studies at Peace Studies and Department at Bradford University, in West Yorkshire, provided an important sounding board as Wainwright updated Reclaim the State. She also has a pantheon of academic heroes, including the sociologist C. Wright Mills, and Ralph Miliband, a Marxist political theorist and sociologist who was once her mentor.

Unlike many academics, Wainwright is not shy about plunging into the rough-and-tumble of politics and government. In 1982, she headed up the ‘popular planning unit’ part of the Economic Policy Department of the Greater London Council, a government body that managed a number of critical London-wide services, from roads, housing and public transportation to fire-fighting, emergency planning and waste disposal.

When left-wingers in the Labor Party took control of the GLC in 1982, propelling Ken Livingstone into its leadership, the GLC initiated a series of policies to push power outward to localities as much as possible. For the next five years, the GLC also made its documents and budgets highly transparent, and invited citizens to participate in the GLC through local and citywide public assemblies and other more direct forms of participation. The Council was a robust experiment in re-inventing the delivery of public services.

To Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was then pushing her savage laissez-faire agenda of privatization and deregulation, however, the GLC’s popularity was a threat.. Its new and attractive democratic model of local government and its institutional transparency and openness stood for everything she was against and showed that marketization was not the only route to reform. Ken Livingstone went out of his way to be a magnet for the idea that there was an alternatives to the Tories, by highlighting the unemployment and social strife they were causing. Prime Minister Thatcher responded by abruptly abolishing the GLC in 1985.

Thus began a new chapter for Wainwright, who returned to academia and wrote first about the Labor Party. Then after a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1989 she worked on a stirring rebuttal to the free-market right published in 1993 as the book Arguments for a New Left. Following the collapse of a political newspaper called Socialist, which had brought together environmentalists, socialists and trade unionists, Wainwright and others decided that the left-of-center needed a new publication that would be independent of any party and aligned with an eclectic array of progressive political factions — feminists, environmentalists, socialists, trade unionists, consumer advocates, and others.

The result was Red Pepper, a feisty political monthly magazine launched in 1995. Wainwright once told a reporter that she had discovered an archival copy of an Estonian magazine with the tagline, “We will throw pepper at bureaucrats and capitalists the world over!” — which inspired her to suggest the name Red Pepper. The magazine’s original tagline, “Spicing Up the Left,” has morphed to “Raising the Political Temperature” and now “Spicing Up Politics.”

Red Pepper’s editorial charter declares its commitment to “internationalism; sustainable, socially useful production; welfare not warfare; and self-determination and democracy.” It holds itself forth as “a resource for all those who imagine and work to create another world � a world based on equality, solidarity and democracy.”

“We want to stimulate new forms of political agency,” Wainwright once told a reporter, “—first by providing a forum or cauldron of debate. But a forum with a purpose. We campaign as well as debate..”

Red Pepper has always been a volunteer-based effort with a precarious budget. But it has also attracted many big-name political and cultural figures, such as Billy Bragg, Harold Pinter, Tony Benn and David Hare and leading academics, which, at times, has given it an outsized influence in mainstream political circles.

A recent issue of the attractive, well-designed magazine, which is also available online, includes articles that take stock of the global justice movement since Seattle; the need for a shift of power and wealth from the global North to the global South in order to avert climate catastrophe; and an account of popular democracy in the barrios of Venezuela. The magazine’s website is a rare, non-aligned political forum for all the progressive voices that may not get a fair hearing in party politics, but which inspire the passions of ordinary citizens.

Wainwright now spends time raising money to try to stabilize the future finances of the magazine and attract a new generation of readers. Her other major commitment is the New Politics Project at the Transnational Institute, based in Amsterdam.

Working with a collaborator, Italian activist-researcher-writer Marco Berlinguer, Wainwright is now doing research responding to “the exhaustion of our existing institutions, including many of those on the Left.” There is ever-more curiosity about collective and social organization, she said, and a political backlash against trickle-down economics and neoliberalism. But, she adds, “There is also insufficient thinking about the principles, forms and problmes of alternative institutions.”

Wainwright and Berlinguer, an expert on networked politics, are now talking to economists, political and cultural theorists and activists in many different spheres of change, hoping to find some new answers.

One avenue that clearly intrigues them is the promise of the commons — a theme that was much in evidence at the Barcelona Free Culture Forum, which Wainwright and Berlinguer attended in November 2009. At the event, activists from diverse digital tribes readily embraced the commons as a way to describe their many collaborative communities — free software, Wikipedia, open-access publishing, music remixes and video mashups, among other forms of shared creativity.

“The commons is a good concept for a foundation of a more systematic sort. But we need to give it greater institutional form so that it’s not just rhetorical and vague. It has to catch the imagination.”

She added, “We also have to distinguish between different kinds of commons that require different kinds of institutions. Some commons involve everyone, such as money, the environment and knowledge, while other commons are more self-defined and self-selected..”

Wainwright is impressed by the “naturalness with which free culture movement treats information as a commons. It is self-evidently the right thing to do, and establishing the commons in practice is infectious and self-reinforcing.” Free culture, she points out, “has revived the aspiration for the socialization or “common-ization” of basic resources” — an aspiration that is under siege in instances of public services, health and education and natural resources like water and energy.

“The commons offers a rich but non-domineering framework of options for institutionalizing forms that are in the interests of everyone,” Wainwright said. The great value of free culture, she said, is that it serves as “a type of social imaginary” for entertaining a broader political vision.

Wainwright is quick to caution, however: “We need to think about the role of government and political institutions as framers of these commons. We have to address material institutions and the political economy of virtual institutions. How can people earn lifelihoods? How do we safeguard virtual commons?”

As we confront the implosion of the free-market fundamentalism and the crisis of legitimacy that it has spawned, and ponder the promise of the commons paradigm, we should be grateful that Wainwright is on the case: a seasoned political analyst, sociologist and frontline activist whose self-assigned role is “to explore experiments in social transformation that can go beyond existing institutions.”

Wainwright’s flinty realism is a tonic: “The institutions that are supposed to reproduce daily life are incapable of acting on behalf of the people any more,” she says, “so we need to produce our own institutional alternatives based on micro-experiments and universal values.” It is fortunate that, as new forms of commons emerge from so many quarters, there will be an astute chronicler and critic with pen in hand.