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Participatory Democracy: A Tool for Social Change

It’s about wielding power against unaccountable corporations and governments.

Participatory democracy has been a hallmark of social movements since the days of the New Left. It has been a feature of anarchist praxis since the 19th century, and a component of numerous Indigenous polities, such as the Iroquois Confederacy. In recent years, the mantle of participatory democracy has been taken up by a variety of political actors and grassroots organizers. Whereas direct democracy is sometimes reduced to divisive referenda, participatory democracy is infused with concrete elements of deliberation and civic engagement. Participatory democracy’s most notable institutional expression has come in the form of participatory budgeting. Introduced in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, by the Workers’ Party, participatory budgeting has expanded to more than 3,000 cities around the world. Other participatory democratic institutional-forms are also spreading across the world: citizens assemblies coupled with referenda, communal councils in Venezuela, participatory urban design in Barcelona, and the post-state autonomous zones in Chiapas and Rojava.

Michael Menser is co-founder of the Participatory Budgeting Project and an assistant professor of philosophy and urban sustainability studies at Brooklyn College. In this interview, Menser discusses his new book We Decide! Theories and Cases in Participatory Democracy and lends significant insight into the theory, practice and scalability of participatory democracy.

Alexander Kolokotronis: In the first chapter of your book We Decide!, you provide a typology of perspectives and theories of participatory democracy. Broadly speaking, what is participatory democracy? Is there any particular perspective or combination of perspectives that you most closely align with? If so, why? And what brought you to this position?

Michael Menser: First off, participatory democracy (PD) is not just about having a voice … PD is about sharing power. Just because you have a voice doesn’t mean they listen to you. And even if they do listen to you, it doesn’t mean they obey you…. But it’s about power, wielding it not over others, but with them. It’s about cooperative power and mutual aid. And it’s about relentlessly but delicately democratizing collectivities, whether it is a neighborhood group or large translocal working-class organizations.

What is most frustrating about the history of our understanding of democracy is that in the 19th century, it became reduced to “electing the rulers….” Elections came out of aristocracies; the kings had to give the powerless nobles something to do. The historian John Keane is very clear on this. PD comes from another tradition, or set of traditions, from community members debating and rendering judgments together on both matters of foreign policy and domestic administration in Ancient Greece. The Iroquois Confederacy did it even better since they were way more inclusive. Indeed, women had relatively more power than men. And the Confederacy was not a militaristic slave state. Rather, [the Iroquois Confederacy was] non-extractive and ecological. And PD continued and further evolved in Indigenous communities, medieval European cities, polyglot pirate ships, worker and consumer cooperatives, intentional communities, and now some public utilities and even the internet, as well as “events,” such as the Paris Commune, the Oaxaca Commune and more recently, the Occupy … movement.

As this heterogeneous list expresses, PD operates in many different sectors; it’s like a software or a cross-platform convergence space, enabling constituencies with diverse and even conflicting values to govern together, to engage with each other in ways that reduce inequality, enhance individual and group capabilities, share authority and foster solidarity….

That is its essence as I understand it. But participatory democracy is not a full-blown politics or ideology like anarchism, or socialism or liberalism. Rather, PD can be employed by any of those. Put another way, there can be PD versions of any of those, just like there is even a PD version of religion — Unitarian Universalism — where the congregation chooses its own minister and even modifies the credo that we all say together. PD is thus a transformation engine (or algorithm set if you prefer a more fourth-wave metaphor) that can be and has been used by a variety of politics. Indeed, in chapter one, I argue that six political tendencies use PD quite extensively: communitarianism, liberalism, associationism, anarchismautonomism, ecofeminism and environmental-climate justice. In general, I’m more with the social-reproduction social-public view.

Many of us have heard of private partnerships and often see it is a euphemism for neoliberal policy and institutional arrangements. You pose an alternative: social-publics. What is a social-public and how does it relate to participatory democracy? What contribution do you hope this concept can make to existing movements? In what ways does the concept of the social-public help us build power in ways previously untapped or unexplored?

So many bemoan neoliberalism and its key expression the “public-private partnership,” but what is the alternative? The state? Seriously? You think a well-funded Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is going to solve the housing crisis? You think a fully-funded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is going to solve the climate crisis? Now, I think the state is a necessary part of the solution, but it’s not the state governed by the logic of neoliberalism, nor the state governed by the logic of the state as an autonomous bureaucratic expertise machine. Rather, it’s the state governed by the logic of democratic communities aiming to reduce inequality and preserve resources, just like commoners have done for so many centuries, but this time with elements of state involved. Some might say that to make the state do this would break it. I say, “Yes you are right, it will break the state.” It will disarticulate the state and re-appropriate some of its functions, but it’s a piecemeal process, searching for all sorts of opportunities and thresholds. In my book, We Decide!, I discuss examples of the social public in cases of robust participatory budgeting processes, and water utilities that are dominated by and responsive to the communities around them. Indeed, water utilities is such a sensitive issue, and now especially because of the horrific disaster in Flint, Michigan. Everyone needs to join their local water utility board or commission … because the situation will get worse with climate change, plus whoever controls the flow of water controls the local economy as well.

Administration is as central to the story as legislation. Part of the tradition of self-rule is self-provisioning. This means do-it-yourself (DIY) … taking control of your food system, creating agroecology, and in general, creating rules together to do work, to manage resources — whether this is a garden or workshop, pasture or studio. So, of course PD must structure administration; it must also structure regulation.

In my book I talk about the example of Seikatsu in Japan, a giant federation of consumer and worker cooperatives that self-regulates the food system’s supply chain. Seikatsu is very understudied. At first, I was only going to do a section on them, but it ended up becoming a whole chapter. One of my favorite cases in the book is their Independent Control Committee. They didn’t trust the government or the big food companies to regulate their supply chains, but they also did not elect to have their own food chain certified by third parties — which is the norm for “sustainable” producers in the US. Instead, they trained themselves to do it. Now that’s taking PD to a whole new level and a crucial one. Imagine if we had communities all over the planet trained to monitor supply chains, not to mention water, air and soil. That would bring all that expert knowledge into the hands of locals and get a much more community-driven knowledge production system.

… PD and economic democracy [are] not just about production and consumption, [they’re] about administration and regulation, and this is a way to have power against un-transparent corporations and unaccountable and sometimes incompetent governments.

And on that note, I urge all the readers of Truthout to join their local water utility or friends of the watershed/reservoir/creek [groups], etc. The future of the planet hinges on how we manage water. This ranges from floods to droughts, and the quality, affordability and availability of water will hinge on how water utilities manage this. In many towns, there is a lot [that] locals can do to help out with water management. What the California drought two years ago showed is that economies are dependent on water in ways that many don’t realize. In other words, if communities get control over their water, they can control what sort of businesses can operate, how much they pay, and have leverage over them. Also, understanding and managing water in an explicitly commons and social-public mindset can set the state for transforming other parts of the economy along these same norms of cooperation, inclusivity and sustainability-resilience.

At different moments in your book, you seem to cast a critical eye toward those who look at different participatory democratic institutions (particularly participatory budgeting) as a means of “deepening democracy.” What is meant by the viewpoint “deepening democracy”? And where and how do you believe it falls short?

So, liberal PD … basically argues that we need PD at the local level to make people smarter about how government works and to make sure people get to know each other and can deal with difference. [These proponents] believe we don’t need PD at the national level; there, we need the state in its representative rights guaranteeing form. They also call for worker cooperatives, so as to make sure people develop democratic attitudes and to … make sure capital is not concentrated in large corporations or some private elite, but rather dispersed throughout the working class, so to speak. But I don’t think creating more participatory channels on the periphery of the representative state can solve the problem. I think another governing logic has to take center stage. This is what I call the social-public, building upon what has been traditionally called the commons.

At the outset of We Decide!, you write that, “Participatory democracy cannot solve all the world’s problems. It’s imperfect and limited.” In what ways is participatory democracy limited? What is it that participatory democracy cannot solve? What do you think can and should complement participatory democracy?

From a big picture standpoint, PD alone can’t solve gender inequality, structural racism or the environmental crisis, but it is a critical tool/method/attitude that has been and can continue to be deployed by those looking to combat any and all of them. That takes movements, attitudinal shifts and knowledge and education. Now, PD as a set of processes and a convergence space is, I would argue, necessary for that transformation, but doing PD all the time isn’t going to magically get us off … consumer capitalism and put us onto the road of degrowth. Nor will the proliferation of worker co-ops lead to the collapse of multinational corporations, but it is a crucial part of the combat and the alternative trajectory for the structural evolution of the economy.

At the more on-the-ground level, participatory budgeting can democratize the budget allocation process, but it can’t bring in more money to that process. Worker co-ops can develop a workplace in which power is shared in management at a particular firm, but that doesn’t solve structural racism in the job market where Black [people] are [disproportionately employed] in low-wage sectors. Nor does it mean that the businesses are operating sustainably. I think it’s extremely important to talk about the limits of all the forms because if you don’t, people new to the movement can feel misled or be made to feel that those espousing the view are incredibly naïve and disconnected from reality.

There is an ongoing debate on the relationship between anarchism and democracy. Some anarchists see anarchism as nothing but radical democracy, while others see anarchism as something qualitatively distinct from — and even opposed to — democracy. What is your position on this? And what you do you think your research and theoretical investigations into participatory democracy illuminates about the relationship between anarchism and democracy?

So, classically speaking, I’m a big Kropotkin person and I learned a ton from Bookchin, especially Urbanization Without Cities, Ecology and Revolutionary Thought and the masterful The Ecology of Freedom…. [Kropotkin and Bookchin] were both municipalists, which is to say that they believed in radical local governments that can be differentiated from the state form. But there is another current within the anarchist-autonomous framework. This is located around John Holloway and is much more anti-state. I discuss this in the book and call it anarchist-autonomous PD. It’s about exodus and autogestion. What that means in practice is that a Kropotkin or a Bookchin might dig a well-done participatory budgeting process which involves democratizing a part of the government, but a [follower of] Holloway would never trust it. He and others would see it as a waste of time or a trap because the state essentially cannot be democratized. I think it’s a fair question, but I am a participatory budgeting guy. Also, I say to the anarchist-autonomous PD person, What does the anti-state alternative look like? In some countries with very weak states, it’s an interesting question, but in developed states, I don’t think there is any efficacious way to not engage the state. My tack is to try to fracture and then appropriate part of the state. What I call “disarticulating” rather than smashing — or of course, seizing — the state.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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