• News from Somewhere: Participatory Budgets and Social Transformation

  • By Javier Navascués | 27 May 09 | Posted under: Transformative Strategies
  • What is the value of Participatory Budgeting (PB) for a strategy of social transformation? Is it a mystification aimed at keeping people busy apart from what really matters?  

    “The only alternatives to our method that I can conceive are these: first that we should choose out, or breed, a class of superior persons capable of judging on all matters without consulting the neighbours; that, in sort, we should get for ourselves what used to be called an aristocracy of intellect; or, secondly, that for the purpose of safe-guarding the freedom of the individual will we should revert to a system of private property again, and have slave and slave holders again. What do you think of these two expedients?“ (William Morris. News from Nowhere or an Epoch of Rest.)

    What is the value of Participatory Budgeting (PB) for a strategy of social transformation? Is it a mystification aimed at keeping people busy apart from what really matters? Or is it, on the contrary, a step forward on the path to overcoming domination? Since the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) in Brazil launched the first internationally known PB process in Porto Alegre in 1989 a lively debate has been developing around the transformative scope of these experiences. When the left-wing ‘Petistas’, up to then hegemonic in Porto Alegre, lost the elections in 2004 the debate took on a new dimension; how valuable were these experiments if they could not even prevent the right from winning the local election? Suspicion has grown since the UK Minister for Communities announced that the British Government was ready to ‘devolve power’ to people at the local level turning PB into a generalised practice in the country. It is not the first time that legitimisation of local governments’ financial shortcomings has been laid on the citizens’ shoulders in Europe. Some notorious examples can be found in Germany and other places. Sometimes even well meaning left-wing ruled local councils have tried to develop new forms of local democracy through these procedures with very meagre results in terms of enhanced participation or even impact of people’s desires on local policies. Frustrated expectations and cynical assessments of the real processes can be found almost everywhere.
    Nevertheless I will make the case in this article that PB can be a transformative policy not only in Latin America but in the context of large European cities, and that it is both a worthwhile and challenging endeavour for a left party in government, provided the effort is bold enough. My appreciation rests on my own experience in Seville, a city of 700,000 people in the south of Spain. Since 2003 Seville has been governed by a coalition of the social-democratic party – PSOE – and the United Left – Izquierda Unida. Although the PSOE has the majority in government, IU was able to introduce the PB in the coalition programme. At first, its scope was only the decentralised part of the city budget, but since the last elections held in 2007 the local government has committed itself to submitting to the PB process the whole budget by the end of the term ending in 2011. 
    The PB in Seville is a direct offspring of the Porto Alegre process, although with some variations due to obvious different social and political circumstances. In a nutshell, the idea is that local government has made the political commitment to leave the allocation of part of the city’s expense budget in the hands of an autonomous and self-regulated citizen instance ruled through direct democracy principles and procedures.
    After four years we can look at the process as a new form of collective action which basically consists in reclaiming for citizens the power to decide on issues traditionally reserved by the government, a course of action which is somewhat paradoxically supported by the government. In this sense it is different from the kinds of political intervention traditionally supported by the left such as mobilisation or action to push for demands through elected representatives. It also differs from pure forms of ‘social’ self- anagement either disconnected from, or in cooperation with, the state. Moreover, it is not traditional ‘revolutionary’ action: assaulting (even in a partial way) the state. The question is how to characterise this new form of collective action?

    The Intrusion of Democracy

    I would define these participatory democracy experiences consisting in reclaiming the right to take part directly in the state’s decisions as an intrusion. That is, a break with the practice of the division of political labour between those who represent and those who are represented. This is a crucial point concerning the material structure of the capitalist state as I will try to explain later.
    This attempt at shifting decision-making from the state institutions to a larger public space is one of the most characteristic features of globalisation, both on the part of the powerful and on the part of those who resist. The exercise of power within globalisation combines the formal and hierarchical mechanisms of the state(s) with other more flexible and ad-hoc arrangements such as consensus-building, delegation, partnerships, … Those taking part in these arrangements are not necessarily states or state-based institutions. We can acknowledge this new geometry of power as a structural characteristic of the new phase of globalisation. That is why explanations relying on raw superimperialism on the ghost of a diffuse but omnipresent post-statism do not suffice to account for the current reality. 
    Neoliberal governance does not make the state redundant; it redefines its role. The state is no longer just materialising and reproducing the balance of power between social groups within a concrete territory in a concrete historical moment. It is now forced to share these decisionmaking spaces with some non-state agents giving away sovereignty and simultaneously excluding other agents for the same reason: it is no longer the sovereign any. Nevertheless in the last analysis decisions are enacted through (the possibility of resorting to) the legitimate monopoly of violence held by the state. We are confronted with a more flexible form of state, but it is always an asymmetrical flexibility, within ever changing but selective frameworks1.
    This selectivity is in any case a matter of class, for it can be explained to a very significant extent in terms of the priority of the logic of profit and capital accumulation over any other logic. Thus, current conflicts in the course of globalisation appear as if they were taking place between the (global) market and (national) state, but they really are between capital and society through state and also on the battleground of a wider public sphere. That is why democracy is in crisis. Aristotle said that what makes democracy different from oligarchy is not the law of numbers but whether power is held by the poor or the rich2. In capitalism democracy is the struggle for putting life and its needs before profit and accumulation. The secular struggle for universal franchise since the time of the popular vote made sense as far as it was the same struggle to impose labour and social regulations on the liberal state. 
    It is not by chance that both forms of contemporary democratic collective action, the anti-globalisation movement and modern participatory democracy, emerged contemporaneously. Seattle, the mobilisations against WTO, etc. on the global scale and the vindication of participatory democracy at the local level are the forms that democratic struggles have taken in our time. In the flexible but selective framework of contemporary balances of powers we can discern the difference between two kinds of public sphere: an oligarchic public sphere (beyond the state but comprising it) and a democratic public sphere (also beyond but comprising the state).
    Both modern democratic movements intervene in a widened public sphere but with reference to the state. The anti-globalisation movement in some sense organises traditional protest action vis-à-vis the state but has also tried to develop constructive action through the process of the WSF and its regional counterparts. The movement for participatory democracy is reclaiming not only the capacity to define the ‘common good’ but also the right directly to implement concrete decisions in ways that offer an alternative to the traditional workings of the state.

    “The working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery …”

    The material instantiation and active reproduction of social relations through its own structures is an enduring characteristic of the capitalist state despite all the mutations capitalism has undergone. The state ‘levers’ are precisely those mechanisms which are responsible for the reproduction and reinforcement of these relations in the political sphere. Two of these levers are in my view essential to understand the challenges posed by participatory democracy. These elements form part of what Poulantzas called the institutional materiality of state3. 
    First comes individualisation, the breaking up of society into a collection of atomised human beings. Social relations are decomposed through modern ‘bourgeois’ law in relations between formally equal individuals with their legitimate interests, legitimate as far as they remain private interests. For example, the state recognises the rights of salaried workers as such and those of their employers, but these rights become codified in order to reconcile them, ignoring the fact that salaried workers are what they are because employers exist and vice versa. This is as if exploitation did not exist. Once these rights are recognised and codified they are hierarchically subject to general interest which can only be legitimately interpreted by the state. Obviously, in class-divided society, general interest is also subject to selective assymetry precisely through these codes. If democracy is the movement of the people from below to overcome the burdens imposed on their lives by the existing relations of power, the movement for democracy must be autonomous from the state to avoid the limits set by this codification. Otherwise, it will remain constricted within these boundaries. The autonomy of the people from below is the condition of democracy.
    What is the aim of this autonomy? Overcoming the division of labour. The division between intellectual and manual labour is the other lever of state mechanisms I want to focus on. A non-reductionist interpretation of this concept can easily work out the homology between the power of capitalists and managers in the workplace and the power of the state. An homology due to the role of technology – objectified social power, dead labour which has been appropriated by the capitalist – subjecting living labour to the role of raison d'état, the superior knowledge of the state of what is and what is not the public interest.  

    The division between intellectual and manual labour in the management f common affairs is much older than capitalism. It is rooted in the first appearance of class societies. But a rationalistic, functional and ‘scientifically’ based administrative science is the product of bourgeois society. Not only in a metaphorical sense but in a very real one. Classics of bourgeois republicanism such as Madison and Sieyes4 argue openly in favour of representative democracy against direct democracy, and base their arguments on the virtues of division of labour in the world of business affairs. Whatever the mystifications later constructed to justify this option, representative democracy was the natural way to organise public management in a society based on salary. The struggle for taking part directly in public decision-making on an autonomous basis, the core of the struggle for participatory democracy, is the negation of this division of labour.
    Upholding this division of labour within the democratic movement is the negation of the whole struggle’s basic aims. The British labour movement defeated itself by endorsing the Fabian affirmation: ‘We have little faith in the ‘average sensual man’. We do not believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe his remedies … We wish to introduce the professional expert.’5 This way the emancipatory project surrendered to its very enemy by accepting social engineering. Needless to say, this also occurred with the authoritarian turn of the Russian Revolution and the theory and practice of the leading party. Both are examples of what Poulantzas called the ‘techno-bureaucratic statism of the experts’6, a common feature of Stalinist and social-democratic state-worship, something very neatly criticised by William Morris in his News from Nowhere7, an anti-utopia written to counteract the influence of ‘technical solutions’ to the ‘social question’ in the 19th-century British labour movement. 
    That is why it is not enough to control the state levers, as Marx explained in the Civil War in France. Not even building new ‘proletarian levers’ will be effective. The solution lies far beyond these measures. The whole idea is what Marx himself called ‘the reabsorption of state power by society as its own living force instead of as forces controlling and subduing it’ 8. Or to say it in Poulantzas’ words ‘Transformation of the state apparatus tending towards the withering away of the State can rest only on increased intervention of the popular masses in the State (…) through their own initiatives within the State itself.’9

    Autonomy and Collective Knowledge

    In my view, the transformative value of PB experiences stands in direct relation to the degree to which they promote the autonomy of citizenship and question the key division of labour between rulers and ruled, giving rise to a new form of collective knowledge on common interests.
    In the case of Seville, taking into account the limits of time and scope, advances and withdrawals can be assessed in relation to these two issues. Concerning autonomy, the first step is the ‘constitutional’ process, the political decision to make it a self- egulated process. An idea imported from Porto Alegre, “autorreglamento“ (self-regulation), was the key to the people’s ownership of the process. Principles of solidarity and social justice and procedures to implement these principles are codified and periodically directly revised by the people in the applied statute. It should be pointed out that these regulations also stipulate the framework for the relations between the process and the local authorities, thus avoiding subordination of the former to the latter.
    The very existence of these self-established rules, and practical compliance with them, are the keys to avoiding clientism, which is an endemic problem for popular-movement autonomy. On the other hand, the rules stipulate in great detail how popular Assemblies and all the instances of the PB are to be chaired by citizens, not by public officers, and how the public infrastructures and resources can be used by citizens when needed.
    The framework for relations between local authorities and technical staff and the instances of the PB is one of the clues. Building this framework was not unproblematic. At the very beginning in 2004 a conflict arose between the District Councils and the corresponding instances of the PB. By March 2007 a decree was passed by the local government in which it committed itself to fulfilling the ‘determinations approved by the citizens’ assemblies in the self-governing rules’ and instructed all of the staff to ‘comply with these rules’. Between these two moments a long history of debate and shared learning took place not without struggles. During this period several procedures were established to ensure that the local government would be fully accountable to the Assemblies and to provide for scrutiny by the chosen delegates of the whole process of public spending.
    Regarding division of labour, the process was able to question the traditional functionally oriented way in which local government is organised. The ‘business-as-usual’ administrative procedures are made transparent and then questionable by the people, both in terms of form and of content. Public managers are forced to negotiate with the people over how things are done. Practical knowledge balances technocratic knowledge. The educator is being educated.
    Forging alliances strengthens autonomy, and citizens become collectively more competent. Sectoral agendas gain force in the territory based Assemblies, winning support and raising questions which otherwise would have remained within minority groups. The appearance of deliberative instances with citizens and public workers deliberating together on a horizontal basis creates the possibility of breaking the monopoly of local government as the interpreter of collective needs. 
    In this way the process opens itself to research on new issues: the agreement on gender parity opens the question of how the politics of time might make the right to participate real. All the collective bodies rotate and all delegates can be revoked. Nobody can hold a mandate twice. The process is open to a broader concept of citizenship: children under legal age, migrants whatever their legal status, … are given full rights of participation.
    As a result, a collective process of knowledge and power-building begins to develop. Citizens are more competent and knowledgeable, and so more confident. Autonomy grows, bringing together groups and people form outside and inside the local state Further questions arise from this cross-fertilisation between practical, vital experiences and more intellectual and technical understanding: what are the criteria for appraising the estimated cost of a programme or a public work? How should public services be deployed to guarantee access to everyone?

    ‘He who is not busy being born is busy dying…’
    A Brief Excursus on the Question of Political Parties and Participatory Democracy 

    Obviously the advances that I have been describing up to now are only partial and limited. However, they afford a glimpse of what could happen if participatory democracy is allowed to develop. But this introduces more challenges.
    One of the most urgent is the need of change within political parties. Political will is a must if participatory practice is to continue without being denaturalised. Seville, Porto Alegre and many other cases show that a bold, rigorous and self-critical commitment from the government side is indispensable. That implies that political parties also make a choice.
    Left parties born out of the  workers’ and democratic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were then constituent parts of those movements. They were rooted in them, and they tried and were able to represent them in and against the state. But at present they inhabit a sort of hybrid space, between state and society, if indeed they have not been fully absorbed by the former. Participatory democracy challenges them to decide between statism and autonomy.
    ‘Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state“‘. This is not a liberal assertion. It was said by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme10 and is rooted in a clear understanding of what statism is, an idea that seems to have been forgotten by left parties. It can be said more loudly but not more clearly. The first political task of parties, from outside but also from within, is just that, to place a limit on state freedom.
    The second challenge for the parties is to be able to resist becoming ‘states’ themselves. This brings back the question of the division of labour, that is, the urgent need of serious measures against bureaucratisation and professionalism, measures aimed at direct democracy and other much needed organisational and cultural changes. The debate is old enough, dating at least to 1872, but today it is more urgent than ever. The traditional model of left party, today a pale shadow of what it used to be, does not fit with participatory democracy. 
    If this is so, what remains for parties to do today? Politics and ideology, …which in itself is plenty. Society is not homogeneous. Just like the state, it is criss-crossed by all sorts of contradictions and political projects, some of them only different, others mutually exclusive. The main role of political parties in participatory democracy is precisely to politicise it, to avoid its banalisation. But in a sense they need to be born again. And to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s song, political parties which do not engage in being born will be very busy dying.

    Intrusive Democracy, Turning State to Commons

    Participatory democracy practices are consistent with social transformation to the extent to which they deny the operation of the ‘levers’ of class state. Contemporary capitalism blurs the former clear-cut frontiers between state and civil society, but this had always been occurring. The  secular history of democracy is the history of the successive blurring and widening of these spaces, the history of the building of autonomy and of intrusion. The decay of democracy has to do with the fragmentation of the popular layers and further co-optation of some fragments within the corporatist state structures. Today’s plural societies lend themselves easily to being managed ‘democratically’ by the state through sociological categorisation into ‘sectors’: women, migrants, the elderly, ethnic groups … The democratic movement needs to build a common identity and agenda with this plurality11. Autonomous democratic practices visà- vis the state are the way to reinvent democracy as the intrusion of the poor.
    Is participatory democracy a technique for social control or is it an empowering process? It can be both at the same time. A minimum of political will and autonomy are required. The rest comes with practice: overcoming divisions, mutual knowledge feedback, common-interest identification and collective project-building. 
    Only a social practice of conscientious regulation of the way social life is managed will make the elements of a new society emerge. Cooperating is the only way to learn how to cooperate. The development of planned cooperation to meet common needs is the basis of the future expansion of the ‘commons’. New capacities will develop as the new society develops. But a necessary condition for the emergence of these new capacities is to begin moving forward, even in distorted, precarious and insufficient steps.
    Is there any way other than participatory democracy to provide for the common needs? Is there an alternative path to prevent bureaucratisation and specialisation? What should we wait for? It can be argued that the highly populated and complex societies of the 21st century cannot work as a permanent assembly, as a global Athens, but who is proposing such a thing? We can only propose, and it is quite enough – in order to avoid well-known mistakes and search for a process that can overcome the state as a separate entity from society – to move in the direction of regulated society. This process is not a ripe apple which will fall into our hands. Hard struggles are required to make possible new ways of organising life in common. Naturally, many obstacles must be removed. But there is no sense in postponing participation on the eve of the new society because participating is the only way to give birth to those human beings who will imagine and build that new society.

    1 This concept of ‘selective assymetry’ is very similar to that of Bob Jessop’s ‘strategic selectivity’ (The Future of the Capitalist State, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2002). Of course, I am responsible for any misunderstanding of his point of view.

    2 Aristotle. La Política (Politics). Justino de Azcásrate (transl.). Madrid, Espasa Calpe, 1997

    3 Nicos Poulantzas. State, Power, Socialism, Verso, London, 1980. 

    4 Yves Sintomer. Le pouvoir au peuple. Jurys citoyens, tirage au sort et démocratie participative, La Découverte, Paris, 2007

    5 Beatrice Webb. Our Partnership, Longmans, London, 1948.

    6 Poulantzas. Op.cit.

    7 See the introductory quotation.

    8 Karl Marx. The Civil War in France, First Draft. 1871. In Collected Works, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org) 1993, 2000. 

    9 Poulantzas. Op. cit. Emphases in the original

    10 Karl Marx. Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875. In Collected Works, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org) 1999.

    11 Something that brings up the question of identity politics and the way the state manages emancipatory demands, as pointed out by Balibar (Communisme et citoyenneté. Réflexions sur la politique d’émancipation à la fin du XXe siècle, Actuel Marx, n. 40, 2nd quarter 2006)  

    Javier Navascuésteaches in the Department of Industrial Organisation in the University of Seville, and is a member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). He is Executive Director of the Marxist Research Foundation (FIM).


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