Models of Participatory Budgeting


The following was written as a research document for Rebecca K.W. Keelwho is running for 2nd District City Council of Richmond, Virginia. Please support all soldiers for democracy!

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which the general public is organized and mobilized to enact its own collective priorities regarding public funds. While governments retain the right to levy taxes and produce a fixed operating budget for each year, participatory budgeting empower citizens to allocate public resources according to their needs.

The Network on Participatory Budgeting and Municipal Governance divides the history of participatory budgeting into three stages. First are the years from its inception in 1989 until 1997, during which participatory budgeting was confined to a few, adventurous Brazilian cities. This was the ‘experimentation’ stage, during which the model was exported from its origin city of Porto Alegre and tweaked according to local conditions. This was followed by the ‘Brazilian spread’ to 130 of Brazil’s municipalities through to 2003. After that year, participatory budgeting leapt to the world stage (‘expansion’) in a diversity of forms (‘diversification’) (Cabannes, 2015). For simplicity, let us confine our historical discussion to its origin in Porto Alegre and the transformational effects the process had on that city. Then we will jump to the past five years, during the third stage of global expansion and diversification, particularly as participatory budgeting entered the United States.

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Free Stuff for Free People

It’s an election year! And you know what that means: public displays of wackadoo as American politics sinks to new lows. But there has been some interesting philosophical wrangling, as Bernie Sanders entered the presidential race as the first successful avowed socialist to enter a presidential race since Eugene V. Debs. He introduced what for the United States are radical ideas: universal health care, tuition-less college, and a living wage. These are ideas that have been taken for granted elsewhere. Yet it has led to an avalanche of memes about “freeloading” and “free stuff”. That’s too bad, because “free stuff” is necessary for a free society.

The reason for this is pretty simple. Property is power granted by the state that gives the owner of a thing the legal right to constrain the actions of non-owners regarding that thing. Every property right is state coercion against non-owners.

This is made worse by two additional factors about property. First, it is endlessly accumulative. There is no end to the wealth that people are able to acquire. The result is that the state is primarily at the service of those with the most property. And I don’t mean that wealthy people have more political influence. Because ownership means being able to call upon the state to control others, the state is literally at the service of property owners. In fact, the accumulation of wealth could not occur without the modern state there to protect it.

Second, property is not restricted to a limited domain of objects. In the United States, it took a horrific war to end the practice of owning people. At the same time, exceptions to property rights have steadily eroded. Feudal societies recognized various common property rights, mostly revolving around subsistent use. For example, the commoners of medieval England had the right of “estovers”, the right to take wood from any woodlands, regardless of ownership, or piscary, the right to subsistence fishing. Yet now property rights are conceived as being without such exceptions, regardless of people’s needs.

A maximally free society would have no property rights. People would take whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. However, we cannot will such a world into existence. But if we care about the freedom of the individual, then we must ease the restrictions of existing property rights. This is achieved by one of two ways.

First, we give people money. In a world of private property rights, the lack of money is a lack of freedom. If I don’t have money, I can’t get on the bus and ride across town, I can’t take food from the store, I can’t rent or buy shelter – no matter how much I want to or need to. Money is the primary means in a commercial society of accessing objects locked behind the invisible bars of property.

This is true regardless of why I don’t have money. I may be destitute from illness or I may be a gentleman grifter. It doesn’t matter. If we care about the freedom of human beings among modern property rights, then we have a political, coercible obligation to give them money.

Second, we can modify the means of distribution. We could give everyone the money they need to buy necessities. Then they could go and buy their own health insurance. The problem there is economic – the nature of the commodity causes most people to be priced out of their markets. This has been shown to be true for free markets in private pensions, for-profit insurances, and other forms of finance, as well as natural monopolies in transportation, communications, and utilities. That’s why so many of these goods and services are decommodified (taken off the market) in most countries. Access to them is not based on a price determined by supply and demand.

This is the actual nature of most of our “free stuff”, both the free stuff we already have, and the free stuff that we want. We are shifting the means of access from rationing by price to rationing by other means. Private, for-profit health insurance means that access to health care is rationed by how much you can pay, which is driving more and more people out of the market as costs increase. Universal health insurance means that health care is distributed by the medical necessity of the care, as determined by the doctor and patient. Private college means you go to college if you can afford it, and you have the academic qualifications. “Free” public college means that you only need the academic qualifications.

Between the two scenarios above, one private and rationed by price, and the other public and rationed by need, which gives more freedom to the individual? Because public goods are distributed by means other than price, they deliver more freedom to the individual. I have more freedom when I can see any doctor that I like because health care is guaranteed regardless, then when a private insurer tells me I can only see doctors in my ‘network’. I have more freedom when I can attend college when I have only to demonstrate my competence rather than both competence and payment.

Property itself is state coercion. If we care about freedom, then we must adopt means of reducing the restrictions of property against its non-owners. A system of taxation and transfers expand the freedom of those without by providing them with public money. And, as citizens, we have the fundamental obligation to defend the freedom of one another. Thus we owe our tax money to others. Also, an expansion of public goods expands freedom by distributing goods in a manner besides price – for example, universal health insurance distributes care according to medical necessity. All of this assumes that we genuinely care about freedom, and that we don’t just use it as a buzzword or shibboleth. That seems to be in short supply these days.

Liberty is Security, and Security is Liberty

A brief article over at Reason summarizes a couple of recent political studies that show that creating restrictions to combat terrorism actually increases the risk of terrorism*. In one case, religious restrictions foment religious violence. In the other case, restrictions on the freedom of expression in the name of security provokes violence. These studies provide evidence that security is better served by maintaining liberty, rather than curtailing it. While this is useful empirical evidence, we can make a stronger case for maintaining liberty for the purpose of security.

Let’s start with a real-world example.

On November 15th, sheriff’s deputies knocked on the door of John Livingston, a 33 year old father, looking for a suspect in an assault investigation. The deputies asked to enter and search the premises, and Livingston told them to get a search warrant, as is his right, and closed the door. Instead, the deputies broke down the door and began beating Livingston. The deputies tased, maced, and finally shot him four times. Livingston was unarmed, and was called a “very kind man and an incredible carpenter”.

It would seem to me that John Livingston was not very secure.

This is precisely the practical purpose of the administrative restrictions that are placed on state agents. Without courts and other limiting institutions on state action, which we might also call liberty, citizens do not have security against agents of the state. We can dismiss the people who say that state agents only go after people who have done something wrong. The way they figure out if you’ve done something wrong is by investigating you, which involves all sorts of potential violations of the citizen’s dignity. And then they’re wrong (or biased, or just plain malicious) all the time.

It is not only that liberty contributes towards security, as the Reason post suggests, but liberty is security. Thus, when people (well, fools) say that we must “give up some liberty for more security”, they are actually suggesting a logical contradiction. They would be suggesting that invasions of our homes and privacy, or threats to our lives or freedom, somehow make us safer.


*Note: “terrorism” is not a word with any useful or precise meaning.

Campaign Zero Releases Ten-Point Police Reform Program

An organization called Campaign Zero has released a comprehensive ten-point police criminal justice reform program this past week. The organization affiliates itself with #BlackLivesMatter. In producing the policy demands, it used the best recent research and lawmaking in regards to police practice and reform.

The ten reform policies are as follows:

  1. End Broken Windows Policing: “Broken Windows” is the policing theory that major crimes stem from minor crimes. The NYPD is infamous for its aggressive execution of Broken Windows policing. This has led to massive racial profiling by the NYPD, and, in using police force against the sale of loose cigarettes, the death of Eric Gardner. Even if Broken Windows is correct, criminalization and the use of police power is not an effective way to reduce minor disorder. In addition, some public disorder is caused by the mentally ill, who are not within the bounds of criminal law. Instead, police forces or other public agencies should establish “mental health crisis” teams that know how to handle the mentally ill.
  2. Community Oversight: Campaign Zero advocates civilian commissions for disciplining police officers and nominating police chiefs. Also, they want an independent complaints office to be established that can promptly investigate citizen complaints. Both of these offices need to be free of police influence.
  3. Limit the Use of Force: Campaign Zero looks to multiple cities for reform of use of force policies, which include restricting the use of deadly force and high-speed car chases, reporting all deaths and injuries caused by the police, and improved de-escalation training.
  4. Independently Investigate and Prosecute: Because standard prosecutors are often the allies of the police (for organizational reasons), special prosecutors and independent investigators will be needed for police misconduct.
  5. Community Representation: The police should become more diverse, to reflect the community that they police. However, this is more a reform of image and not substance. We already know that more diverse police forces are not less violent.
  6. Body Cameras and Filming of the Police: The demand for body cameras on police is by now well-established. When they work, they reduce the use of force. When they don’t, it’s because that police force has already figured out how to game the camera. Laws permitting filming the police are also popular, but not respected by the police in the jurisdictions where such laws are in effect.
  7. Training: Police training tends to focus on the use of force and officer safety, out of all proportion to actual need. Police training needs to be geared more towards social interaction, rational de-escalation rather than authoritarian command, and what role police are meant to play in society (they are not there, as one police chief put it, to “tell people what to do”).
  8. End For-Profit Policing: “For-profit” policing is a bit of misleading rhetoric. At first glance, I thought it meant the takeover of public safety by private for-profit security forces, which also needs to end. Campaign Zero also means the pernicious practice of using misdemeanor law and civil asset forfeiture to fill the coffers of the municipality. Ferguson PD were clearly ruining the lives of its black citizens to extract fines and fees for the municipality. It could be as subtle as reducing the timing of the yellow traffic light to get more violations against the red light (while also increasing accidents).
  9. Demilitarization: Campaign Zero is a light touch here, demanding an end to the federal 1033 Program and restricting the purchase of military-grade weapons and the use of SWAT teams. I think that we can safely say that there is no real need for police departments to have any military weapons. Also, no local police department really needs a SWAT team. Local police use SWAT frivously and dangerously, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Most famously, a SWAT team in Georgia burned a hole through a baby after throwing a tear gas cannister into her crib. State-level mobile SWAT-style teams would use less personnel and material, and they would be used more appropriately because of their scarcity.
  10. Fair Police Union Contracts: Campaign Zero advocates for revising police union contracts to remove the ridiculous privileges that place police officers above the law, such as blocking investigations or ensuring continued pay after killing someone. I disagree strongly. Sworn law enforcement officers of the state are not normal employees who need protection from their employer. As the last year has hopefully made clear, we need protection from them. Instead of renegotiating union contracts, police unions should be banned altogether. This is something I wouldn’t say about any other labor union, of course, but the police aren’t any other worker.

Campaign Zero has made a great start. Yet I think effective long-term reform requires further policies:

  1. Disarm Police Patrols: The police of the British Isles and of New Zealand demonstrate that alternative police weapon policies are safe and effective, especially at saving the lives of citizens. Police forces in these countries have special firearms units, while the rest of the force either uses non-lethal weapons, or requisitions a firearm in special circumstances. (This hasn’t made the United Kingdom any less of a neoliberal police state, but that has more to do with its collapsing political system.)
  1. Limit the Scope of Police Jurisdiction: Criminal justice is used for everything in the United States. Is the neighbor’s party too loud? Call the police to tell them to keep it down (you never know what kind of people they could be). The police also handle homelessness (by forcing them out of the city), drug abuse (by arrest), and mental health crises (see above). And recently, SWAT teams have been used to serve health or zoning code violations (there might possibly be drugs on the premises!). Violence from the police would be less likely if the scope of their activities were constrained. Some of this police overextension can be solved through decriminalizing various activities. Portugal famously decriminalized drug use with no ill effect, while New Zealand legalized prostitution, greatly improving the health and well-being of sex workers. Many police functions do not require police powers, that is, the power to deprive persons of their liberty and to search them and seize their property, either by warrant or probable cause. Also, in some jurisdictions, bearing arms for those purposes. But these powers are not needed in many of the cases that the police currently handle. Unarmed civilian employees, either as part of the police service or another agency, could handle mental health crises, community patrol, criminal investigation, traffic management, first response and general services. If police powers or firearms are needed, then law enforcement officers can be called in.
  1. Break the Police Unions and Solidarity: See above. If ComGlobeCorp can break the will of a union for wanting an extra dollar a day, then surely we can break the police unions that protect killer cops.
  1. Break the Cult of Violence: Working to end police violence is a difficult battle, although the tide may be turning. With all that killing on all those cell phones, people can no longer look away. The battle is difficult because the amygdala is a powerful component of the brain. The amygdala is the part of the brain that tells you that killing will work, because you are afraid. It’s a short-term solution that is very satisfying to the ape brain. People are afraid of school shootings, so they want armed police in schools, even though that’s resulted in tasered children, handcuffed four year olds, and elementary school children arrested for writing on their desk. There’s another mass shooting, so people buy more guns, even though owning a gun makes you more likely to be the victim of a shooting death.

The alternative is reason, of course. This means the application of the most successful methods for criminal justice and public safety. Violence, as a significant cost, does not factor into many of these methods.

The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Councils

The Petrograd Soviet
The Petrograd Soviet, 1917

Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Councils, also known as soviets in Russian, were the democratic ideal of 20th century socialism. During this century, when the traditional social order breaks down, people organize popular assemblies in the place where they spend their time. In the 20th century, at least, that place would be their place of work, where most people were consigned for over 8 hours a day. Thus, when social institutions crumbled, workers turned to their co-workers in the factory. From their assemblies, deputies were elected to a council, to provide direction and order amid social chaos.

Origin and History

The first workers’ councils appeared during the first Russian Revolution, in 1905. They evolved from traditions of Russian labor disputes, wherein capitalists preferred “councils of factory elders” to dealing with trade unions and strike committees. During the 1905 revolution, workers’ councils in urban areas and peasants’ councils in the countryside first appeared as means of self-government alternative to traditional local government, and for advancing the interests of the represented class. Among all the many Russian social revolutionaries, only Lenin predicted at the time that the soviets would become the principal form of socialist democracy.

When the Russian Revolution destroyed the tsarist autocracy in 1917, workers’ councils were again the dominant mode of popular governance. The Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) Soviet was the effective authority of the Revolution. While a traditional (bourgeois) “Provisional Government” existed, the Soviet was the assembly that workers looked to. When military units began sending delegates to the Soviet (making it a Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), the Revolution was entirely in the hands of the Soviet. The Provisional Government could do nothing without the authority of the Petrograd Soviet.

Across Russia, soviets of a single class (either workers or soldiers or peasants) or mixed soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ councils, or workers’ and peasants’ councils, etc.) effectively governed their own patch of land. The Bolsheviks were the only party that advocated peace and Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War. Thus, they dominated the weary Russian soldiers and sailors, who in turn recognized only their own soviets, not their officers, as an authority. Meanwhile, the Social Revolutionary Party was by far the most popular of the revolutionary political parties. It was the support of the soldiers’ soviets, and not their democratic victory, that propelled Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. The Bolsheviks dissolved the constituent assembly, and instead turned to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets to write the new socialist constitution. This constitution made Russia a “soviet republic”, and its later inclusion of other, conquered soviet republic created a “Union of Socialist Soviet Republics”.

The soviet phenomenon spread across Europe, as far west as a creamery in Ireland. Germany was another hotbed of workers’ self-organization. The German Revolution began when the sailors at Kiel refused to reenter the slaughterhouse of the First World War. The soldiers and sailors at Kiel established a workers’ and soldiers’ council and took the city under their control. In time, soldiers’ and workers’ councils would take many cities. In Munich, the workers’ and soldiers’ council abolished the Bavarian monarchy and created a Bavarian Soviet Republic. German “free militias” – the seeds of German fascism – responded and successfully crushed the German soviets. The Social Democratic Party, Germany’s principal socialist party, stepped aside and allowed the private militias destroy the workers’ councils. The German soviets threatened their own domination of the new German Republic, now remembered as the ineffectual Weimar Republic. A neutered form of workers’ councils remains, though. The Weimar Republic established the German tradition of co-determination in their corporations, in which employees elect “works councils” to represent them to the corporation, and to share power on the corporate board.

Workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils appeared in other times and places throughout the 20th century. Wherever there was industry and social dissolution, workers’ councils appeared. Sometimes this was the result of socialist ideology, but mostly it was the organic result of people organizing where they spent their time. Workers’ councils appeared during the various revolutions of the 20th century, including in China, Spain, France, Chile, Portugal, Iran, and even Hungary in 1956, when soviets were formed in rebellion against the Soviet Union.


Workers’, soldiers’, or peasants’ councils are formed when the social order breaks down and a new order is needed. The dissolution of authority means that capitalists no longer have the means to command their workers, because the police or private security are unwilling to help compel employees to obey. Soldiers refuse to obey their officers, and so obedient soldiers no longer quash the rebellious soldiers. Instead, responding to the ancient democratic that lies dormant in the minds of human beings, they gather into assemblies. Those assemblies unite across a common area by a council of elected deputies. Because the workers and soldiers formed these councils spontaneously, there was rarely any consistent standard of constituency. Some deputies were elected by a single factory, some by a number of small factories. Soldiers often elected deputies by unit. This could result in enormous councils. The Petrograd Soviet was composed of 3000 deputies in its final form. And because of the inconsistent representation between workers and soldiers, two-thirds of the council were soldiers’ deputies. As much as its perceived legitimacy, its control by the disaffected military was a source of its power over the city in revolution.

The soviets gradually developed a standard form for dealing with the issues that came before it. All business went before a smaller Executive Committee, elected by the soviet. The Executive Committee in turn submitted its decisions back to the whole soviet for acceptance or denial. Executive Committees would subdivide into subcommittees to handle more specific matters.

At first, the soviets governed their own little piece of Russia, but soon they convoked an “All-Russian Congress of Soviets” to reunite revolutionary Russia. The Congress of Soviets was a body of deputies elected by local soviets or provincial congresses of soviets. Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants were thus represented “indirectly” in the Congress, because they did not vote for their deputies to the Congress. Rather, they elected their soviet, and the soviet elected deputies to other congresses. Again, the Congresses of Soviets tended to be huge, with the important Third Congress having 2400 deputies. The Congress turned deliberation of legislation over to a Central Executive Committee (CEC) of 500 of its members. Originally, the CEC would draft legislation and deliver it to the Congress’ three annual sessions for their approval. Eventually, though, the Bolshevik dictatorship dispensed with the democratic fiction and the CEC passed legislation on its own. The CEC turned administration over to a Council of People’s Commissars (ministers of state), periodically elected.

Stalin eventually effaced most of these unique features of the soviet system in his 1936 constitution. A directly elected “Supreme Soviet” replaced the indirectly elected Congress of Soviets, and traditional ministers of state replaced the people’s commissars. Stalin intended that the Soviet Union resemble European parliaments as much as possible, while at the same time resurrecting czarist and nationalist Russian traditions.


Workers’ councils have been the democratic hope of heterodox socialists and communists throughout the 20th century. Mainstream Communists towed the line dictated from Moscow or Beijing, in which workers’ democracy was whatever Dear Leader said it was. But sidelined socialists, communists, and anarchists delved into the workers’ councils concept, and what this spontaneous creation of the working class meant.

The first notable element of workers’ councils is their class basis. Because deputies are elected from the places of work in capitalist societies, the councils exclude the capitalist class (who typically is not at the scene of work). Territorial constituencies would include any person in that territory, but factory-, farm-, and barracks-based constituencies only capture the classes that inhabit those spaces. Thus, Lenin thought that soviets alone would be the organ of proletarian (and peasant) revolution. This is also their weakness as a governing organ, however. Unless the industry was considered “women’s work” (as textiles were and are), the workers’ councils would be dominated by men. Many Russian working women were housewives, or worked in trades that were not socialized, such as domestic labor. Thus, women would be excluded from the soviets. The same would be true for the unemployed. Only the working class may have composed the workers’ councils, but not all the working class.

The socialist tradition envisions precisely the indirect representation that the soviets adopted in the form of Congress of Soviets. Instead of what we are used to today, in which we vote directly for representatives to our national assembly, Russians would elect their soviets, and those soviets would send delegates to a district or provincial congress of soviets, and those congresses would send delegates to an “All-Russian” Congress of Soviets. After more soviet republics were added (conquered), their congresses of soviets would send delegates to the All-Union Congress of Soviets. The benefit of this structure was that each constituency is organized. Each soviet is capable of debating and deciding national policy and directly instructing their deputy with their decision, and likewise in each congress of soviets up the ladder. The diffuse electorates that elect representatives do not have that ability to confer with one another. However, in contemporary research, indirectly elected representatives are found not to be as representative as directly elected representatives. In most nations, the trend has always been away from indirect election. In the United States, the 17th Amendment transferred the election of Senators from state legislatures to the people of the state. For several decades at least, this prevented the corruption of the state legislatures from infecting the federal government. Likewise, the indirect election of the president has created a host of electoral problems – namely, that the president does not have the support of the majority.

However, in the revolutionary socialist vision, the government is not meant to satisfy the same purpose as is conceived in liberal capitalism. In liberal capitalism, the government wields the coercive power of the sovereign state as a means of maintaining the rights of the individual. In a socialist democracy, the purpose of the government is to progressively take the means of production into the democratic control of the working class. Coercion “withers away”, because the purpose is to organize all economic activity as a public service, and not to enforce law against individual persons. This is the classical socialist aim of replacing the bureaucratic “government of man” with the democratic “administration of things”.

Thus, perhaps soviets would be an effective means of such administration. Housewives and the unemployed do not need to be represented on a workers’ council, because they do not operate the means of production (the offices, factories, and farms). The social organs do not exist to coerce people in their non-economic lives, so they do not need to be represented. Citizens of liberal societies demand equal and accurate representation because they expect to be equally bound by the law. However, the “comrades” of a socialist state collectively comprise an administration for organizing the economy, and so strict, numerical, and direct representation is not as important. In this case, perhaps soviets and their congresses are not suitable representative organs by liberal standards, but might be by socialist standards.


History has not provided us with an experiment in a society organized (in part or in whole) into workers’ councils. Most revolutions that feature workers’ councils are crushed either form without or within. The Russian, Chinese, and Iranian Revolutions were stifled by their revolutionary “vanguard”. The Bolsheviks swept to power in Russia through their power in the army. Even though they were the only party to advocate for soviet power, they progressively stripped new soviet institutions of their effective power. The Soviet Union that was meant to be a union of workers’ councils became a vassal to the Communist Party dictatorship. The same happened in China; when democratic institutions threatened Mao’s power, he turned on them. In Iran, the clerical government snuffed out the shoras. Most councils are shut down by outside forces. The Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian council movement in 1957; the United States destroyed the workers’ councils of Chile’s poder popular in 1973.

We might not see the return of workers’ councils either. In 21st century social collapse and revolution, popular assemblies have appeared more prominently in neighborhoods than in workplaces. In Argentina, while many workers recuperated their factories and workshops, the neighborhood assemblies were the locus of social organization. In socialist Venezuela, the government organizes communal councils in neighborhoods, but few workers’ councils, despite the demands of the working class. In Syrian Kurdistan, neighborhood communes serve as the basis for its revolutionary democracy.

This might be a trend throughout the century. The working hours of developed industrial nations have shrunk to an 8-hour day, which means that most workers do not spend all of their waking hours at the workplace. Industry contracts as capitalists move capital resources to the nation with the lowest labor costs. A new pattern in employment is emerging, in which low wages force people to take on multiple part-time jobs instead of a single full-time job. Employees can be fired at will, without recourse to effective regulatory intervention or labor unions. And now, industry is becoming completely automated, which means few workers will be required at all.

These are only possibilities, and social trends are hard to parse. An alternative proletariat emerges. While old industries fall away, previously professional occupations become “proletarianized” – turned into rote, unskilled tasks. For example, educational corporations and universities continue to force teachers into the proletarian mold, disastrously ripping away the professional autonomy and ineffectively trying to deskill education.

However, if these trends away from a traditional industrial society are not just historical outliers and do persist, we will not see workers’ councils in the future, at least of the 20th century kind. The center of popular power will return to the neighborhood as the source of popular power.

Homage to Rojava

Amidst the horrors of the civil war in Syria, the Kurds of the Syrian northeast feel the irresistible pull of democratic liberty. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD in the Kurdish) declared neutrality in the carnage of the battle between Assad loyalists, ISIS, and other factions. Meanwhile, the party has established an oasis of democratic society in the Middle East, where the people govern themselves directly, ethnic peace reigns, and women are empowered.

The Kurdish rebels claim inspiration from Murray Bookchin, the American anarchist who founded the concepts of social ecology and libertarian municipalism. Social ecology is a theory of social institutions that focuses on how relations of hierarchy and dominance cause environmental problems. Libertarian municipalism, a localist form of participatory democracy is the solution. Bookchin came to Kurdistan through the radical leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan developed his theory of “democratic confederalism” on top of Bookchin while awaiting death in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison. The PKK adapted the ideas into their own practices, and its ideals permeated Kurdish society to some extent. Thus, the Kurdish Movement for a Democratic Society created democratic communities in Syrian Kurdistan (or Rojava) when the civil war broke out. Now, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have heroically repelled the ultraviolent forces of ISIS from their cities. The image of the militiawomen of egalitarian Rojava have become famous, despite the best efforts of the international media to ignore the area.

The Social Contract

Instead of a constitution, the Rojava revolutionaries have created a “Social Contract” between its Autonomous Regions (or cantons) of Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira. In appearance, the Social Contract establishes an unusually advanced parliamentary republic, with a Legislative Assembly of representatives elected for as many as two four-year terms, an Executive Council formed by the majority party, and a Constitutional Court with the power of judicial review.

What is interesting about the Social Contract is that it commits the Regions to achieving gender and ethnic equality. The cities are not only Kurds, but also include, according to the Preamble, “… Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens”. Article 14 of the Contract commits the Regions to “redress chauvinistic and discriminatory State policies, including the payment of reparations”.

Article 27 and 28 guarantee the equality of women in all walks of life. The Social Contract demands that women compose at least 40% of political bodies like the Legislative Assembly and the Executive Council. At the community level, gender equality is more radical; each commune has two co-presidents, one man and one woman.

Participatory Democracy in Rojava

Rojava wouldn’t be interesting if it were merely an advanced liberal polity. Despite the opinions of the Western ruling classes, Middle Easterners are perfectly capable of constructing democratic states. Tunisia’s constitution, for example, has similar provisions about the participation of women in government. While the PYD dominates the more traditional bodies, the Movement for a Democratic Society has led the development of democratic life among the people, and a real democracy parallel to the official one.

As with all past radical, revolutionary democracies, popular power is built upon assemblies that are organic to society. In Rojava, communes of 300 residents organize into popular assemblies. Elected committees and the co-presidents (as mentioned, one man and one woman) run the commune. The communal committees have been responsible for maintaining the social and economic life of their people amidst the horrors of the civil war and the ravages of ISIS.

The communal committees have also organized the cooperatives that supply their neighborhoods with food, water, fuel, and electricity. With ISIS, Assad, and the Free Syrian Army to their south, and a hostile Turkey to their north, the Rojava cantons have no choice but to rapidly develop their own local industry just to survive. Notably, each commune includes an ecology committee, as the revolutionaries are as sensitive to environmental problems as they are to gender and ethnic equality.

One important committee in every commune is the peace and consensus committee, which acts a community court. Except for the worst crimes (i.e. murder), the peace and consensus committees resolve disputes and violations in their communes through restorative justice practices. This involves the committee mediating an agreement between the offender and the victim to produce a plan for restitution to the victim and the restoration of the offender to the community. Crimes against women are referred to the women’s committee of the commune. Failure to find agreement at the communal level pushes the decision to more traditional, city-level courts. Obviously, Rojava has abolished the death penalty, as almost the entire world has.

Along with the transformation of criminal law is the transformation of the police, or “Asayish”. According to an observer of the revolution, the anthropologist David Graeber, the “ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police”.

Also as with previous revolutionary democracies, the communes combine to form larger political bodies. The communal co-presidents of multiple communes form the people’s council for the district, each of which elects their own two co-presidents. These district co-presidents then attend the city council, which is supplemented by councilors elected directly by the public, until the city council has 200 members. The co-presidents of each city council then attend the cantonal people’s council. Each city then receives an additional number of seats in the cantonal council so that every city is represented according to their population.

At each level of government, a women’s council exists to make decisions that especially affect women. The women’s councils can veto any decision of the people’s council on a women’s issue.

Finally, the Rojava militia, the People’s Protection Units (sometimes People’s Defense Units), is democratically organized. Like revolutionary militias throughout history, including the American revolutionary militias and the Red Army of the Russian Revolution, the militia units elect their officers. Every ethnicity in Rojava is represented, in the militia units, except for the Assyrians, who have their own battalion. The women have their own militia, the Women’s Protection Units. And like historical revolutionary armies, the democratic militias have been enormously successful. The YPG repelled ISIS from the Rojava city of Kobani, despite being starved from the north by a Turkish embargo. The YPG alone rushed to the defense of the Yezidi when ISIS forces threatened that religious minority with slavery and destruction.

It’s not all sweetness and light in Syrian Kurdistan though. Islamic traditionalists in Rojava do not appreciate the explicit feminism of the communal organizations. Because of decades of enforced monocropping by the Syrian dictatorship, the cantons lack the agricultural diversity and soil integrity for feeding themselves. Even though they aim for economic self-sufficiency, the cantons have to look abroad for investment, lacking the resources for domestic investment. The large eastern canton, Cizire, cannot even sell its massive oil reserves because of the Turkish embargo. And now that the YPG has liberated Kobani, the Peshmerga, the regional forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, have moved in as reinforcements. However, Iraqi Kurdistan, as the closest thing the Kurds have to their own state, seems eager to subordinate their Rojava compatriots.

Despite these problems, the revolution in Rojava will remain one of the historic moments in democracy, joining with the revolutionary commonwealths of the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the later Paris Commune, and the Russian and German Revolutions. Most poignantly, Rojava is reminiscent of revolutionary Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. The Catalan anarchists, like the Kurdish feminists, established a genuine democracy that shows what a mockery our pretend-republics are. And like the Catalans, the Syrian Kurds are beset by hostile powers and allies alike. One must hope that the Rojava cantons survive their tribulation in life; but even if they do not, they will live on in memory.

Killer Cop Indicted!

This past November, NYPD officer Peter Liang shot and killed Akai Gurley. Gurley and his girlfriend were descending the stairs of their housing project. Liang had opened the door with the hand holding his gun, and the gun fired a single shot. Upon finding Gurley dying in the stairwell, Liang immediately texted his police union representative. Now a Brooklyn grand jury has indicted Liang for second-degree murder, criminally negligent homicide, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and official misconduct. This indictment, contrasted with the failure of indictment in the Garner case, demonstrates that protests, including riots, can bring change. I think there are several good reasons to believe this.

First, indictments of police for shootings are uncommon, no matter how irresponsible or unjustified. Police are judged to be more credible witnesses by juries, even when their stories are childish fantasies, as in the testimony of Darren Wilson before the Ferguson grand jury. Also, prosecutors require police cooperation in testifying on the state’s behalf in trials, among other things. Thus, prosecutors are not eager to prosecute police. That the Brooklyn DA got an indictment is unusual.

It’s especially unusual in the Gurley case. In the Garner case, the Staten Island grand jury did not indict Daniel Pantaleo, despite watching Garner’s murder on videotape. There, the chokehold (or “carotid hold”) used was entirely unwarranted, the victim announced that he was unable to breathe, and yet Pantaleo persisted. This was not just a murder, but a malicious, callous murder. Not only should Pantaleo have been indicted and prosecuted, but also the police and EMTs for failing to attempt revival, despite being required to do so. However, the Gurley case was apparently an accident. It was an accident that should not have occurred had the officer been competent, but nevertheless accidental. Yet the Brooklyn grand jury (rightly) piled on the counts against Liang.

This outcome seems unlikely without the continued bravery of the protestors against police misconduct and racial partiality. It is common in history, though, that power grants concessions to demotivate social movements. With the possibility that justice might be done for the (mostly black) victims of police violence, the movement for police reform and racial justice might slow down. I hope that the movement will accept nothing less than complete victory and comprehensive police and criminal justice reform!

Police Reform Programs

Welcome to the end of the Police Reform Series! We have looked at the legitimacy and effectiveness of the police as an institution, and examined solutions to police violence based on research and policy experimentation. Now we can design programs for police reform.

In a rational society, reform would be a matter of social deliberation, refinement, and implementation. But our society is not rational. Implementing reforms mean struggle, in the streets and in the halls of power. The beneficiaries of the social structure fight for their power and wealth, leading to irrational, compromised law and policy. The cost of achieving even the meanest of changes is such that seeking reform is pointless. When the cost of reform is great, revolution becomes more attractive. For that reason, I present a minimum and a maximum program for changes to our policing practices.

Minimum Program

We would be lucky to get any action on police reform from the various governments and police departments around the country, but these reforms are the minimum that people should demand:

  • Demilitarization of police departments
  • Elimination of SWAT teams
  • Expansion of civilian police units, such as mental health professionals and community service officers
  • Expansion of evidence-based crime prevention policies and practices, and alternative crime control methods
  • Disarming police patrols, or replacing police patrols with civilian patrols
  • Decriminalization of various activities, such as drug use, to reduce police enforcement
  • Implicit bias training for police officers, as far as that will go

Police reform must also be a part of a larger transformation of the criminal justice system. Many Republican-dominated states have pursued reform because of the budgetary burden of American hyperincarceration. These reforms involve reforms to juvenile justice, diversion programs, and sentencing reforms to keep people out of overcrowded prisons. Yet the criminal justice system is still plagued by corrupt prosecutors and judges willing to do anything to play ‘tough-on-crime’ for their electoral constituency. We need root-and-branch transformation, not just of the police, but the whole damn system.

Maximum Program

The ultimate aim is to change policing fundamentally, from the roving of armed men threatening violence to unarmed citizen patrols using persuasion to disarm the criminal. This probably seems utopian to a society that worships violence, especially police violence, but it has precedents.

The first time I encountered the idea of a persuasive police was in reading about the Seattle General Strike of 1919. The city’s entire working class shut down in a sympathy strike with its shipyard workers. The strike committee had effective control of the city. The committee reopened basic services under their direction, including public safety, as the police sat on the other side of cordons. The union paper called for any workers who had been veterans in the army and navy to assemble. The 300 men who responded were organized as the “Labor War Veterans Guard”. One principle was written on a blackboard at their headquarters:

The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.”

The Labor Guard needed to disperse crowds and mobs to prevent the police from having an excuse to move in. One War Veteran described his method of dispersing crowds:

“I would just go in and say: ‘Brother Workingmen, this is for your own good. We mustn’t have crowds that can be used as an excuse to start any trouble’. And they would answer: ‘You’re right, brother’, and begin to scatter.”

Even hostile observers of the strike remarked upon how well public order was maintained in those days. We cannot know which factors might have contributed to this: the many people who stayed at home during the strike, the solidarity of the strikers, or the Labor Guard’s persuasiveness. It does demonstrate, however, a possibility of a less violent system of public safety, and an avenue of social experimentation.

Police Reform: Civilianization, Specialization, and Centralization

The movement for police reform continues, but media interest wanes. But not at Democracy in Principle! We’ve been covering the possibilities for major police reform since Ferguson. Most elite commenters focus on legalities like racial profiling or technical fixes like body cameras. Policing is a social institution however. In fact, it’s an institution that expects that giving a gun to somebody and sending him out on the streets is a good idea. At Democracy in Principle, we know that more rules and legal fixes aren’t going to fix a bad idea. We need new rules.

We have a variety of ways of reorganizing crime control to reduce the potential for police violence. We could replace sworn police (with their attendant legal powers) with unarmed civilians. Alternatively, we could carve the police department up into different tasks. Let’s look at each in turn.


Law enforcement officers have legal powers beyond ordinary citizens. Law enforcement officers have the power to execute warrants issued by a magistrate, perform warrantless searches and arrests when the officer has probable cause to believe a crime is being committed, and to carry and use a firearm. As we’ve previously explored, those last two powers are a big part of the issue.

‘Civilians’ (the rest of us) do not have these powers. Citizens do have the power of “citizen’s arrest”, that is, the power of arresting a person caught in the act of committing a felony, or for whom an arrest warrant has been issued. Citizens can use non-deadly force for the purpose of arrest, but this opens the arresting citizen to civil liability. As for firearms, a civilian would have to acquire special licenses to openly carry a firearm.

Police departments have many roles that do not require law enforcement powers. Law enforcement powers are only needed in cases of conflict and violence. Despite what we see in the media, police work does not often entail violence. Thus, we can “de-police” police tasks that do not involve conflict: criminal investigation, crowd control, traffic management, responding to calls for service, and “general services”. These now-civilian police jobs could then call upon law enforcement when their legal powers are needed, when an encounter becomes violent or a crowd becomes a riot.

For example, most calls for service do not involve violence. Sworn officers do not need to carry out patrol and first response. Instead, civilian employees could patrol and respond to calls, and diagnose, mediate, or solve the problems found. Various jurisdictions in the United States have hired “Community Service Officers” (CSOs) for these and other, miscellaneous general services that the community calls upon the police to do. For many jurisdictions, this is a cost-saving measure, as CSOs are paid less than sworn police officers. In others, people are hired as CSOs as a training program.

I have not found a researcher who has looked at the effectiveness of police departments with Community Service Officers. However, the bankrupt and failing Camden City police department was recently replaced with the Camden County Police Department. The county police hired a large civilian staff to reduce the number of sworn police officers, the civilians being cheaper. Since the switch, the murder rate has dropped. So at least a large civilian staff does not diminish police effectiveness. The fall in murders may be due to the new departments focus on community policing.

Many police departments have also hired Crisis Intervention Units (or Teams) to deal with the mentally ill. The mentally ill are also common victims of police violence. These mental health workers may be nurses or social workers, but they walk into a potentially violent situation nonetheless.


Another solution to police violence is to reduce the scope of police tasks. Police departments have a grab-bag of roles that don’t necessarily go together. Police primarily focus on street-level criminal violations, but also traffic infractions. At the same time, the police perform “general services”, or whatever public task other street-level officials don’t do (police have been heard to call it “chicken-shit work”), like responding to non-criminal complaints or crowd control. Police departments could shed these extra tasks and reduce police presence.

Traffic services are a prime example of such a task. Traffic safety only tangentially relates to criminal law. Most cops hate performing it, as you might expect. But few nations have actually had a separate service for traffic. The only separate services have been New Zealand’s Traffic Safety Service (1936 – 1992) and Western Australia’s Road Transport Authority (1975 – 1982), run by their respective Transportation ministries. The services eventually merged with their police departments for budgetary purposes.


A final solution to police violence is to reduce the number of police through centralization of police forces. Currently, municipalities govern police forces. However, municipalities often get savings by contracting their police services to their neighbors. Likewise, a state could save on money, personnel, and capital by creating one statewide police service to replace local forces. Another way of looking at it would be that the existing state police become responsible for all police tasks in the state.

Scotland joined their police forces into a single national police service, called Police Scotland. While they have projected savings in the future, the transition itself was expensive. Our real concern is the safety of the public though, but no numbers have emerged on that. Police Scotland did make the decision to arm their patrol officers, unlike their English counterparts. If that policy continues, though the public is not happy about, we may be able to get comparative data on police violence between the two UK nations.

Centralization carries its own concerns: if the police are state-level, how will the public hold them to account? That’s a good question, but moot, because we can’t hold them responsible now. However, localities should have the power to discipline wayward law enforcement officers, and having a statewide police would not prevent a local review board from having the power to discipline an officer. Of course, law may say one thing and government does another.

These solutions are less radical than building a world without police, in which the enforcement of laws are replaced with reconciliation to the law. My intention is to point to successful police practices that reduce the number and presence of sworn police officers in possession of power that is deadly when abused. Civilian police workers can take over tasks in the community, while other tasks can be spun off into other agencies. Centralization reduces police presence by exploiting the economies of scale that can be found in a single state police service.

At the end of this week, join me for the thrilling and merciful conclusion to the Police Reform series at Democracy in Principle! (Eventually you get tired reading and writing about the police.)