Why Participatory Democracy Matters - And Movements Matter to Participatory Democracy

01 Junio 2005

If participatory democracy spreads, the institutions of representative government may lose some power to the new participatory sphere.

I come from a country where the Prime Minister has just been elected by 22% of the electorate but claims to rule in the name of the people. Britain may be an extreme case, but across the world democratic institutions are in profound crisis: there is a growing gap between the people and the political institutions that claim to represent them. We have to conclude that conditions hitherto supposed to be sufficient to bring about democracy - the universal franchise, a multi-party system, a 'free press', even a proportional electoral system - are not strong enough on their own to achieve power for the people.

Democracy for me means political equality (i.e. equal rights to participate in political decisions) and popular control. The vote doesn't guarantee political equality. We see in the US how some people are more equal than others - money effectively buys power. Neither does the vote guarantee popular control. The institutions of both party and state have had all sorts of sophisticated mechanisms that blocked or mediated to nothingness the demands and desires of the people. The search is on therefore, not for a substitute for the vote, but for reinforcements, so that by supplementation at its roots, the vote can become a genuine instrument for popular control, and make democracy a reality. Participatory democracy, in all its local variety, can be understood as an attempt to create these reinforcements to the vote.

When a concept is as broad as 'participatory democracy' looking into its origins may make its current potential for us clearer. In the North, the first stirring of participatory democracy showed in the movements created in the late 60s and 70s - particularly the women's, students' and radical trade union movement - in response to the feeble, ineffective nature of electoral democracy. These radical social movements were the product of a very specific historical experience. Although the movements themselves were defeated in many ways, some of their ideas have lasted and now connect closely with participatory developments in the South, especially Latin America, and particularly Brazil.

The radical movements in the North came out of a search for genuine forms of popular control and political equality. From their struggles emerged two kinds of innovation which have relevance beyond those movements' particular concerns (gender, workers' conditions, student politics, the environment) and speak to us now in our urgent efforts to create real democracy in the 21st century. The first innovation had to do with power, the second with knowledge.


The generation in Britain shaped by the welfare state and the post-war boom developed high expectations which soon clashed with the political blockages of elite 'democracy'. This empty democracy consisted of the choice between two different teams for managing the status quo. In the workplace a presumption of equal rights clashed with the authoritarianism/paternalism of both corporate and public sector management towards 'their' workforce. Among women, a new social self-confidence tried to break the bonds of subordination which still pervaded a culture in which formally women were supposed to be equal.

Traditional parliamentary parties of the left offered no obvious route for these new challenges. The elected institutions were weak, too weak to control the growing apparatus of the state, too weak to stand up to the emerging power of the big corporations who usually had strong allies within the state; C.Wright Mills' 'industrial and military complex'. But even more important, the formal power of existing political institutions had no reach over the daily denial of democratic desire in workplaces, public services, the community and the home. People began to find ways of creating the power to fulfil those desires by taking collective action, directly, in their daily lives. Workers succeeded in extracting from management's dependency on their labour, a source of power to refuse, and from there to control the pace and conditions of work, sometimes moving further to develop alternative plans for production itself . (Over what is produced, and under what conditions) What began as innovative responses to particular problems at that time, illustrates for us now a potential resource for democracy of a more general kind.

Historically, corporate management blackmailed elected governments, undermined their ability to carry out their democratic mandate, thereby weakening the mechanisms of popular control, insisting that the viability of the productive economy depends on deferring to the private market. The radical experiments by the organisations of labour in the 60s and 70s illustrate the possibility of a challenge from within production to such blackmail. It is true labour has no access to capital - other than through the state; the investment strike is a card that corporations can, in theory, play. But corporations must invest in some location. Workers demonstrating their own plans for industry and services and being ready to bargain over them radically challenges the 'truth' that governments have no choice but to defer to business for economic know-how and productive capacity. (This power within the workplace also provides an antidote to private corporations pressing for privatisation and presenting themselves as the sole fount of all wisdom as far as efficiency is concerned. Alternative founts of wisdom, coming through the trade unions of frontline workers, for example, (or service users) and detailing from the inside how to improve a public service, provide weighty counterforces to the private sector's blackmail and pretence of indispensability.

The logic of the women's movement was also resistance from within society - rather than the delegation of the power to act to political representatives, in this case from within the structures of male and state power. Autonomous women's centres in various locations were organised. In the workplaces, women took strike action for equal pay; in service professions, and amongst the users of those services, they challenged the attitude of professionals to the public, particularly women. In all this they were way ahead of anything the government or municipal councils would dream of doing. Their action was a manifestation of a new source of power which could pressure state bodies to support and work with women who were taking action themselves.

The point about these sources of power is that they resided in society, not in government, though they needed government support for their demands fully to be realised and sustained. Radical political parties, it was argued at that time, should ally with these social initiatives, joining forces to bring about the changes that they purport to stand for. It is a well worn problem for left politics that leftish governments are elected to office on radical programmes and almost invariably give in to the pressures of private business. People blame political leaders, 'lack of will', 'betrayal' or they blame the trade union leadership for not exerting sufficient pressure. They sometimes contrast the compromises of left governments with the radical boldness of right-wing governments. But one of the reasons why such right wing governments can be, on their terms, more effective is that they have on their side, acting for them and with them, a whole variety of powerful agents working within society and outside government - sections of the media, financial institutions, some senior echelons of the civil service and the judiciary. There are exceptions which prove the rule - in Britain management and all levels of workers in the National Health Service were opposed to Health Service privatisation and quietly, in their daily work, sabotaged any attempt to push it through; as a result Thatcher, otherwise mistress of everything she touched, had to back off. But more often, economic and cultural sources of power in society follow through the electoral victory of the right, granting extra momentum to right wing government. This is done not in an explicit way but 'naturally' behind the scenes.

Failing to face up to the implications of the powerful underlying reactionary tendencies in existing capitalist society - including the institutions of the state -left social democratic parties have tended to assume that, having acquired the majority vote, they could drive the 'machinery of state' in the direction they choose. But electoral victory will only produce real change where democratic movements and organisations within society are already exercising all sorts of economic, social and cultural power to bring about change in a common, or at least complementary, direction to the elected government.

This leads us on to the second insight from the movements of the late 60s and 70s.


There are distinctive methodological and in particulr epistemological lessons to be drawn from the practice of the movements at that time but before we examine them, let us briefly remind ourselves why theories of knowledge may be politically important.

A left party that works in close and mutually respectful alliances with initiatives for radical change in civil society requires a very different kind of understanding of the role and character of party members, supporters and associates, from the conception traditional to social democratic parties and to some degree communist parties too. The traditional model is of a mass 'rank and file' who vote for the party, campaign for votes, give their dues, and engage in political debate around programmes drawn up centrally by the leadership of different party groupings. This party model assumes that it is electoral office which bestows the power to change society. An understanding of the importance of movements and initiatives in civil society on the other hand, recognises party members, supporters or allies as independent, knowing skilled agents of social change in their own sphere. A 'bottom up' model of knowledge - understanding its practical, tacit, no codified forms - requires the party to relinquish its monopoly over leadership and the charting of direction.

The social movements of the 60s and 70s broke with the positivistic understanding of knowledge as made up only of scientific laws. A critique of positivism had long been underway in the academic sphere of the philosophy of science but political institutions lagged far behind. The Cold War had frozen the dichotomy of market-versus-state into the political culture of a generation. Philosophically underpinning this dichotomy went the false polarisation of positivist views of knowledge (scientific law based knowledge concentrated in the hands of experts) and individualist views of knowledge (practical knowledge possessed only by individuals, acting atomistically and whose decisions can only be co-ordinated by the market or not at all).

In their ways of organising - whether it was the consciousness raising groups of the women's movement or the multi-union, multi-workplace committees of the radical trade union movement - the social movements lived out their rejection of existing views of knowledge. They valued practical, often tacit knowledge not available in codified, written form but embedded in people's skills, emotions, and creative activity. They also demonstrated (refuting the individualist model of knowledge) how this practical knowledge could be shared and debated and how practical knowledge could be combined with theoretical, research based knowledge, becoming the basis of purposeful social intervention. Implicitly, they invented a model of social agency that is constantly experimental rather than pre-informed, tolerant of uncertainty but also open to using existing knowledge where it is effective.

I am abstracting a logic from what was often a messy, confused and ineffective process. Moreover, there was at the time a tendency to dismiss altogether the institutions of representative democracy as not only weak, but obsolete. There were a few opportunities to put innovations into practice at a local, municipal level in different parts of Europe - for example in Britain and in Italy - but before these experiences could mature, the radical right had taken control.

Brazil's Story

The part of the world where fledgling experiments in participatory democracy have had a chance to mature, combining direct and delegated forms of democracy with an opening up of representative forms, is the South, most notably Brazil. Others will discuss the Brazilian experience in more depth. My opinion is that the experiment nurtured but now faltering in cities in Brazil is vital to everyone desiring real democracy. The essence of that experiment is this: when the Brazilian Workers Party (Partido Trabhaladores, PT) first won elected office in municipal councils, it almost instinctively committed itself 'to share power with the movements from which it came' in the words of one its first mayors, Celso Daniel. Since power lay with finance, the first participatory experiment began with the setting of the budget, specifically the allocation of new investment (participatory budgeting, PB).

Two features of the PT's origins shape or underpin PB. First, PT was born out of the struggle against a dictatorship and as a result recognised the value of liberal democratic institutions. At the same time it had roots in popular mass movements of the factories, cities and countryside who had experienced the need for stronger more participatory forms of democracy. It also had working examples of institutional frameworks for such participatory forms, for example in CUT and the MST . Second, it was strongly influenced by liberation theology and the educational theory and practice of Paolo Freire. This meant that fundamental to PT culture was a belief not simply in 'the masses' but in the capacities of each individual and the possibilities of people fulfilling that potential through collective social change. This is why I say the decision to 'share power' with the movements was 'almost instinctive'. It flowed from the PT's culture, it was part of why they were seeking office - it was why alongside the campaigning for office went support for occupations by the landless, industrial action in the factories, squatting in the cities.

In Brazil the participatory institutions created by the PT and urban movements include:

  • Public institutions independent of the municipal government. The government, or at least special departments, facilitate these institutions and report back to them but do not take part in their decisions. These institutions are open to all in the first phase of the decision-making cycle and then based on recallable delegates. The institutions' processes are transparent, rule-governed and constantly evolving in the light of experience, trial and error.
  • Negotiation between the delegates of these participatory institutions and representatives of both the government and the legislative assembly, in which the mayor and legislature formally have the final say but rarely seriously amend the budget produced by the participatory process because this process has real credibility across the city and the mayor and councillors would lose out electorally if they seriously challenged it.

Four consequences of participation

In Porto Alegre, a much described exemplar of participatory processes, fifteen years of trial and error has produced at least four consequences that have wide relevance, fully justifying the international attention that this unassuming little city has attracted.

Transparency: one of the key features of the crisis facing democracy is the way in which powerful private interests (corrupt local businesses or powerful multinational corporations with their extensive lobbying power) have inveigled themselves into the hidden areas between elected politicians and the state apparatus. In Porto Alegre in the late 1980s corruption was rife. By opening up the process of implementation to citizens PB effectively smoked out many hidden alliances of this kind.

Parliamentary democracy wasn't invented to monitor a large state apparatus. It has developed means of doing so, through special committees of various kinds, but all these mechanisms - Select Committees, Special Investigations, Inquiries and so on - work from the outside, often after implementation. Participatory process, on the other hand, involves opening up policy implementation process at all stages to the day to day involvement by the people affected by the policies. As I write, the political process at all levels of government in Brazil, is being captured by the large multinationals through massive lobbying and assiduous, well-financed networking. In the face of this, participatory processes at many different levels could make a real difference. For example, workers (and local communities in the surrounding area) could have rights of monitoring or, at least consulting, on works in hand by corporations in receipt of public funds or carrying out public contracts.

Redistribution: over its fifteen year history, the PB has led to a significant redistribution of resources from the high income areas of the city to the poor areas. The basic reason, applicable to other contexts, is that the poor are actively involved in the process of resource allocation, and that this process weights the decision-making in favour of those with greatest need for public services and infrastructure. A further, related factor is that taxation became less unpopular amongst the middle classes. By a virtuous circle, as the way in which public money was spent became more open and legitimate, the well-off (beyond the few very rich families who still own a good proportion of the city's land) no longer minded paying their taxes: they saw them going to useful purposes and were glad to personally participate in this.

Services: the social efficiency of Porto Alegre's educational , medical, transport and sanitation services improved significantly compared with cities without PB. The participatory processes being pioneered here allowed practical 'people-based' knowledge to be shared, debated, combined with technical knowledge and built into the policy process.

Increased bargaining power with the private sector: multinational investors like retailers came under scrutiny through participatory process and then yielded concessions on employment, the environment and the protection of local small businesses. It seems that when elected government genuinely shares power with an independent process of democratic popular participation, the overall power of democratic public institutions vis a vis market pressures and international bodies such as the World Bank is enhanced.

In Brazil the search for stronger forms of democracy has made most headway at a municipal level - at least as far as new lasting institutions are concerned. Many have argued, unsuccessfully for now, for developing and applying the same basic principles at a national level. The story of this attempt is for another day. The important point is that extending popular participation to a national level is not simply a matter of good government - exposing corruption, challenging bureaucratic empires, keeping close to the real needs of the people - it is also, in the words of Olívio Dutra when he was governor of the state of Rio Grande Do Sul, about 'raising political consciousness about economic power at every level'. The sharing of power by elected government and popular participatory processes challenges the orthodox perception that when economic decisions are made by federal government or international bodies like the IMF, they are always, and always bound to be, immutably constrained. Such power sharing creates a democratic but autonomous counter power to elected leaders who otherwise become prisoners of established, experienced and sometimes hostile state institutions. At its best, the counter power of participatory democracy can keep politicians' electoral mandate alive as a sustained presence within day to day government. In that sense it supports leaders to carry out their election promises, since they are backed by more vigorous democratic connections than simply an election victory, which in any case the institutions of the corporate market treat with contempt. Popular participation is less easy to dismiss because it carries possibilities of mobilisation and action which politicians cannot ignore, and which could damage the legitimacy of the international institutions which undermine socialist governments' electoral mandates. In fact it is possible that in the world of the global market place, participatory democracy has become a necessary condition of electoral democracy. An extension of participatory democracy would not, by any means, have provided the whole answer for the Lula government but it would have created fertile soil for solutions and strategies. It would also have provided a basis for the mobilisation of international pressure in support of Lula's struggle with the IMF.

Democratic counterpower

I recently wrote a book about a journey through some laboratories of participatory democracy. My hunch was that my journey would be one of political discovery. My starting point was a belief in the creativity of practice.

The idea of participatory democracy as a form of democratic counterpower was the first discovery. Flowing from this is the importance of rethinking political representation, and with it the political party : people must be more literally 'made present' - taking the literal meaning of representation - in control over the state so that the counterpower they build in society in resisting the decisions of unaccountable institutions translates into power over the day to day workings of the state. Finally, the idea of webs of international democracy, indicate that possibilities for democratising the international order are emerging outside the political hierarchy, through an increasingly dense web of international connections created horizontally in the course of mobilising counterpower of every possible kind, which also in turn influences national political parties.

For the purposes of this Barcelona seminar I will go deeply into the first concept only - that of a 'democratic counterpower'. Before I do so let me discuss two directions in which the idea of participatory democracy might go, each of which contains important truths but both of which are damagingly exclusive in their focus. On the one hand is the presumption that we can change the world without engaging in as well as against the state ; on the other is the idea that it is enough for elected politicians generously to open up state institutions to the participation of the people, without significantly changing relations of power between the state and the people.

The first view of participation draws our attention to the power that the mass of people, conventionally defined as 'powerless', possess by virtue of the need that the existing social order has for their complicity. This gives them a power of refusal; refusal to reproduce the status quo and with it the power collectively to transform social relationships. This approach emphasizes our creative power to make alternatives, however precarious, within the present society, alternatives that illustrate or exemplify the values we are struggling to realize in the future. The second, state-led approach to participation de-emphasises struggles for control of public resources, and against privatisation. These struggles raise many issues of popular autonomy and the creation of alternatives which would involve democratic control over public resources and therefore imply a transformation of the state - both is internal hierarchies and its relation to struggles within society.

From Bolivia and Uruguay to Moscow and Berlin, the movements campaigning to keep water and transport, for example, as a common good are not usually defending existing state institutions; but they are organising to keep a common good under democratic control and that involves some engagement with the elected bodies of the state. State control does not necessarily equal democratic control but elected political bodies can be, and have been, engaged with, and allies won within them, as one part of a wider political strategy to provide protection against the private market.

In and against the state

The stories of the radical social movements of the 1970's that I discussed at the beginning of this paper show there are limits to how far counterpower or the transformation of social relations can go before questions are raised about political power, and challenging the status quo at the level of formal democracy (i.e. the vote and political parties). The radical social movements of the 1970's were driven not by a total rejection of the relevance of the franchise - the result, after all of years of militant struggle in earlier eras - but by a sense of disappointment and anger at how weak it had become as instrument of popular control and political equality. The solution was not to bury it but to reinvigorate it and reclaim it from the 'industrial-military complex'. In countries that had suffered from a dictatorship this was even more true: to refuse as a matter of fundamental strategy to engage in electoral politics would be to turn one's back on the struggle for basic democratic rights. The majority of social and popular movements sought instead to build their own sources of power as a basis for engaging with elected state institutions without putting their faith in them.

What I am suggesting here is that to create a dichotomy between 'change through autonomous self-organised sources of power' and 'change through seizing/taking state power' is to ignore, almost as if they had never happened, the last thirty years or so of experimentation with a variety of innovative combinations of self-organised and intra-state initiatives. One feature of these hybrid initiatives was a recognition that the state isn't neutral. Unless radically challenged, state institutions are shaped and infused by the power relations and culture of the societies they seek to govern, whether this relates to class, gender, race, generation or the hierarchical self interest distinctive of state bureaucracies. The only time that radical parties have had a lasting impact on state institutions - so far, almost exclusively, at a local level - is when they have been acting in response to or in co-operation with movements challenging these power relations both in society and within the state and its relations to the people. Porto Alegre, Bologna, the Greater London Council all bear this out. The point here is that the alien character of the state is not a universal absolute: possibilities of change depend on the balance of social and political power both within the elected bodies of the state, and in society.

Much of the idea that it is possible to 'change the world without taking power' as John Holloway, for example, puts it, depends, on a critique of the traditional 'statist' left for its treatment of the state as a thing, separate from the rest of society that can be 'seized' to steer the rest of society towards social justice. Holloway insists that the state is 'embedded' in capitalist social relations. For him this points to the importance of action for change within those social relations. This is fine. But if the social relations of capitalist society are struggle, conflict and possible transformation, and the state is embedded in them, couldn't the social relations of the state in all their varied and complex forms also be permeated by this struggle, conflict and transformation? Why should these social dynamics cease, in other words, at the walls of the state? Particularly in countries where previous movements have made, albeit precarious, democratic and re-distributive gains; or where state workers are members of radical trade unions and wider social movements; or where a minority of elected politicians hold allegiance to the democratic social movements rather than the sanctity of the existing state, couldn't struggle and conflict and transformation emerge into and within the state?

To treat the alienation of the state from society as some kind of universal fact places the state as separate from the struggles going on in the social relations of which it is part. Such a view produces a reverse image of the error it aims to attack in the traditional left. Struggle over state institutions - for political representation, for participatory forms of public decision-making, for democratic administration and so on - is one dimension of struggle amongst many ; not superior or all-encompassing but nevertheless essential and particular. To abandon the struggle over the state and political institutions would be to ignore the importance of past struggles for democracy with contempt. But new modes of action and organisation are needed, and emergent. The main challenge is to invent and to innovate without losing our common sense of direction and purpose.

Ready-made participation

This brings us to the second incomplete direction in which participatory democracy is being taken, mostly in good faith by (mainly local) politicians and public administrators aware that their institutions are in danger of losing credibility with the people. Their solution is to 'open up' their institutions to representatives of local organisations, but without any real sharing of power or conscious support for an autonomous public sphere (which would be able to negotiate with, pressure and monitor state institutions).

There is never a clear dividing line between what could called 'state controlled participation' and open participatory process. This came home to me sharply at a conference on participatory democracy in Buenos Aires in 2004. It was in the main hall of one of the city's most prestigious secondary schools. There are many reminders of the unfinished business of making Argentina a democracy. At the entrance, there is a plaque in memory of the students who resisted the dictatorship and the night on which they were taken by the military and never seen again. Their fate has never been uncovered. On the platform, the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared describe their fight to find out what happened to their children and grandchildren. They see their cause as a struggle to participate in the decisions of the state. They have taken direct action, using the widespread support they receive, conducted their own investigations and already made contact with 79 children of the disappeared. The conference is organised by the Observatory on Participatory Democracy, a growing and open-minded network of municipalities committed to develop the theory and practice of participatory government. In an earlier session we heard the mayor of Buenos Aires and a senior official proudly describing the city's new system of participatory democracy. In the audience were residents, some of them members of what remains of the neighbourhood assemblies created during the crisis of 2002 - 2003. Taking their cue from the outspoken energy of the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, they asked 'How do we participate? We've tried but nobody listens'. Another asked 'How do we get organised beyond our own neighbourhood?.' The official structures of `participation,' it seemed, were not rooted in either the daily experience of active citizens or the forms of organisations which they had themselves autonomously created. The municipal official answered defensively, hardly recognising the problem.

Here is an example of good intentions but no recognition of the need for a fundamental change of mentality of those at the centre of the municipal decision-making - a recognition that local citizens and their organisations could potentially enhance the ability of the municipality to meet the needs of the people. Such recognition on the part of the political parties would involve a huge mental leap because it would mean taking the risk of sharing power, albeit within a negotiated framework, with people and processes over which the state did not have complete control. But without that leap, claims to participatory democracy are little more than (temporarily) good public relations. Though they do create the opportunity for innovative groups of people to 'occupy the rhetoric' and try to make it real.

Having looked at what genuine participation is not, let us return to the idea of it as a counterpower (or something better).

I use the word 'counterpower' to describe many sources and levels of power through which it is possible to bring about social transformation. Consider the complex chains of dependence underlying a society - each one provides the basis for a different kind of bargaining. All parts of the state depend on other parts. Different institutions, from local government to the International Criminal Court, can exercise counterpower on other institutions less responsive to democratic demands or humanitarian considerations. Corporations depend on workers. Their funds maybe globally mobile but they have to invest and sell in particular places. They also depend on national, regional and local governments for access to markets, funds, investment locations and so on. Elected politicians depend on voters who in turn have the potential independently to make demands backed by sustained organisation in between elections. Within each different level and institution in society exist possibilities for counter power that can be mobilised to achieve democratic change The list is growing as people find new ways of resisting and initiating alternatives in their own daily lives, and making them collective : from action around corporate brands, through campaigning for control of pension funds, to direct forms of personal international solidarity with people facing military occupation.

The understanding of participatory democracy as a counter power breaks down the traditional liberal division between politics and economics. For not only will institutions of democratic counter power provide political institutions with a means of standing up to the pressures of private capital, they also point to ways in which political institutions can ally with economic pressures for democracy. Alliances with cooperatives, the social economy generally, trade unions, public and trade union pension funds can all bring about the wider economic democracy without which participatory democracy is always unfinished and under threat.

Moreover, the notion of counter power involves seeing social movements as causing ripples well beyond their apparent focus: the green movement or the peace movement for example when in alliance with others are able potentially to exert power over the economy as well as over politics. Both movements raise fundamental questions about the purpose of production (and this can be defined as including forms of distribution, consumption, the types of labour and skill required and the nature of funding and ownership) in huge swathes of the economy: the defence industry; the food, waste, energy and chemical industries. Social and environmental movements have already taken the lead in developing alternative systems in these areas. Recent democratic social movements have rarely been 'single issue' movements. The demands they raise require radical changes throughout society - and come up against vested interests that will resist those changes. The need therefore is to make organised connections with groups who have power and potentially a common interest at every point in the process. But this leads to another discussion ...

Participation speaks back to the vote

The argument is sometimes put forward that participatory democracy should be the basis for a whole political system, a replacement for parliamentary democracy. However, this weakens the case for genuinely participatory processes, the importance of which lies in an ability simultaneously to challenge and complement existing representative arrangements. Representative democracy's legitimacy stems from the minimal but equal participation of all through the vote, whereas the legitimacy of participatory democracy lies in the high degree of activity of what is likely to be a minority through institutions that are transparent, open to all and based on mutually agreed rules. Representative institutions based on one person one vote determine the principles and general direction of an elected government. They set the broad framework. Their potential radicality - why the ruling elites always feared the universal franchise - lies in the fact that formally the vote gives power to the many that can be used to challenge the power of the few.

Ruling elites across the ages and regardless of nationality have always sought to devise mediating mechanisms to blunt `the sword of parliament against private property' as one British Labour politician - writing in the 1930's - described the potential of parliament. To a significant degree they have been successful so that unless the will expressed in the periodic vote is kept alive as a constant presence, monitoring and pushing the institutions of the state, private economic wealth and power remains almost untouched. This is where participatory democracy in radical form, rooted in an autonomous public sphere, comes in. Participatory democracy can monitor the work of the executive and state apparatus. It is able to go where politicians never do, know what politicians rarely investigate. Its legitimacy comes from the intensity of the activity and the transparency and openness of the process. Participatory institutions generate self-confident expectations and this in turn leads to pressure - in the form of lobbying or campaigning - on the representative elected bodies, who make the final decisions.

The importance of process

Popular participation lets people, as well as officials, decide detail on how broad policy commitments are carried out. How public policy is administered is not value neutral: process matters.

Take waste. An environmentally sustainable approach which sees waste as a resource - an embodiment of accumulated energy and materials - is different from an approach which regards waste as something to be got rid of. The former, guided by reuse and recycling, requires widespread popular participation to make it work. This participation isn't an extra, and it's not about going to meetings and attending committees. This approach is about a publicly accountable and therefore improvable system that supports the household making the voluntary act of separation of their waste. The same principles of daily and ongoing democratic processes could be applied to education, transport, social services - indeed every public service. An open, rule-governed process of popular participation appropriate to the task at hand - proposing the detailed priorities of the budget for example, or managing a local public facility - has a stronger democratic legitimacy than officials working behind closed doors, often doing their own deals with certain social groups and economic interests.

Formally, representative democracy does have the final say. But since representatives must each seek re-election in a multi-party system, they have to be responsive and sensitive to the proposals drawn up by their constituents. Participatory democracy, in a complementary relationship to electoral power, thus has the potential to move societies further towards the democratic ideals of popular control and political equality.

Liberal democracy has always conceded that civil society organisations play an important role. It is conventionally accepted that a strong civil society keeps elected representatives on their toes, and does so through organised interest groups all of whom press their causes on government, sometimes through political parties, sometimes through independent lobbies. Sometimes, certain special interest groups - most notably unions and business, but locally also residents or voluntary sector organisations - have been drawn into corporatist arrangements with government, gaining a special political status so that the government negotiates with them over decisions affecting their interests. This sort of deal, however, has often undermined the credibility of both groups: the non-governmental organisations seen as both too close to government and as pursuing their own special interests; the government seen as favouring one group or two groups against others, or organised interests against 'the people'. One of the frustrations and flaws of representative democracy is that while civil society has grown in size and developed in terms of structures and internally democratic forms, it has remained marginalised in its impact on the formal political system - perhaps invited in and then ignored, or used to give the formal system unwarranted legitimacy. Participatory democracy provides a real alternative, or complement, to elected power: a distinct and organised public sphere in which the demands of the people can be articulated, developed and negotiated between each other, and finally negotiated with the local or other relevant state institutions.

Conditions for participatory growth

In order for participatory democracy to attain legitimacy and reinvigorate democratic politics as a whole, certain conditions need to be in place.

First, participatory arrangements need to be open at their foundations to everyone affected by such decisions - even if only a minority participate. Openness is not just a formality; it needs to be worked at. Not everyone may directly participate, but everyone needs to be in contact with someone who does.

Second, there need to be mutually agreed and openly negotiated rules.

A third condition, always difficult to preserve, is the autonomy of the participatory process from the state. The aim for participatory institutions is eventually to share decision-making power with government, to exercise some control over the work of state institutions and to monitor the implementation of government's decisions. But these relationships depend on equality: participatory institutions need to have their own life and dynamism, and know that the elected body respects this. In most present circumstances popular movements have to struggle for any power over the state and that entails first and foremost developing their own autonomous power. Moreover, since they can never entirely trust the state; their autonomy is a necessary means of protection.

Fourth, there must be genuine sharing of knowledge. Where users and service workers, for instance, can contribute their 'inside' knowledge to improving services, public service reform becomes democratic, an essential part of an effective alternative to privatisation.

A further basic condition is that real resources must be at stake, resources which could make a positive difference to the lives of the community. The process must get results. It must not be seen as just another consultation exercise that leads nowhere.

Finally, there's no doubt that the feasibility and legitimacy of the participatory process is enormously enhanced by the existence and electoral success of a party that believes in it. The PT is the pioneer in this respect, at a municipal level, though parties influenced by the new left of the 1970s such as the German Green Party, parts of the Italian Communist Party and the Danish Socialist People's Party created more very limited experiments in this direction. But an increasing number of parties are emerging, in the North and in the South, for whom participatory democracy is fundamental both in their work in the elected institutions of the state and with social and trade union movements. Akbayan in the Philippines is one example, the Democratic Labour Party in South Korea another; the Scottish Socialist Party and the Italian Rifondazione Communista are innovative examples in Europe. In a sense these parties are able to use their electoral legitimacy to emphasise the importance of the participatory process. Their message is that without the active participation of the people, the programme on which the party was elected cannot be carried out. Hence, once elected, they work with popular movements to create mechanisms of support, collaboration and pressure - including on themselves.

If participatory democracy spreads, the institutions of representative government may lose some power to the new participatory sphere. But their power is already in crisis as we have seen. The new systems of managing public resources through a combination of electoral and participative democracy bring an overall gain in democratic legitimacy and as a result, potentially, in democratic power.