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.

Evaluating Models of Participatory Budgeting

Different Models for Different Problems

The brief history of participatory budgeting has produced numerous models with different implications for the benefits they provide, both in terms of material benefits, their perceived legitimacy, and their actual democratic legitimacy. Yves Cabannes has generated the following 17 criteria (Cabannes, 2015, p. 6) for the analysis of participatory budgeting that encompass several general factors: the degree to which democracy is achieved in the process, or the degree to which the people, rather than the government, controls the process; the proportion of public funds controlled by the participatory process; the legal status of the process; and the distributive justice of its outcomes (see Table 1, reproduced from Cabannes, 2015, p. 6). Cabannes’ criteria are an effective frame through which to judge the two models of participatory budgeting we will be examining.

Cabannes table

The Porto Alegre Model

The Origin of Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre

Participatory budgeting originated as part of various experiments in participatory democracy in Brazil following the fall of its military dictatorship in 1985. Popular organizations had formed during the dictatorship to satisfy the unmet needs of communities, and once the military turned over power to civilian government, democratic experimentation expanded. Participatory experimentation was especially vibrant in politically active cities, such as the southern city of Porto Alegre, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. While the city had been dominated by the Democratic Labor Party through the 1980’s, dissatisfaction with the pace of participatory reforms won the new Workers’ Party the mayoralty in 1989, on a platform of opening the city budget to the public (Baiocchi, 2005, p. 34).

The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) was especially concerned to foster a new democratic politics to promote the self-governance of civil society. It conceived of itself as a coalition of social movements, and came to victory on its broad base of marginalized community organizations. Following the Workers’ Party victory in city elections in Porto Alegre, the new mayor, Olivio Dutra, began mobilizing the public for allocating a portion of the capital budget. The Porto Alegre model went through several modifications, most of them initiated by the participants themselves, before taking on its current form.

Over the course of the 1990’s, the Workers Party gained momentum throughout Brazil. Given that its electoral success was centered on introducing participatory budgeting, it made that the centerpiece of its platform, and rival parties also adopted it into theirs. However, the model from Porto Alegre could not be simply imposed on the different social structures of other cities. Each process was tailored to the needs of the political culture of the municipality. While Porto Alegre was a politically active city, the city of Gravatai was largely devoid of an active civil society, which led its participatory budgeting process to be altered (Baiocchi, 2011, p. 178).

The Participatory Process

The Porto Alegre participatory process began with the organization of the city into sixteen distinct districts (sometimes called ‘regions’), and those districts into neighborhoods. The administration identifies the relative socio-economic conditions of the districts, according to a variety of socio-economic indicators (race, income, education, etc.), and then weight them accordingly. Districts with worse socio-economic conditions will receive a greater proportion of public resources than those districts with better socio-economic conditions.

The process is as follows:

  1. The community is mobilized, in the initial years, by community associations cooperating with the municipal administration, but later by the delegates and councilors of the participatory budgeting process itself.
  2. A first round of assemblies is held in each district, open to anyone, but with only residents having the right to vote. In this first round, municipal officials present the investment plan of the previous year and the new plan for the current year, after which citizens evaluate the implementation of the plan by vote. In addition to popular assemblies in each district, the Porto Alegre government also added city-wide popular assemblies organized by theme (‘thematic’ assemblies) in 1994. The themes include transportation and circulation, education and leisure, culture, health and social welfare, economic development and taxation, and city organization, urban, and environmental development. Each assembly nominates delegates.
  3. Preparatory meetings are then held in each of the sub-district neighborhoods to propose projects and rank the collective priorities of the neighborhood. Such meetings are dominated by well-established community organizations. Delegates are elected, with each neighborhood receiving one delegate for every so many attendees. By basing the number of delegates on attendance, participation is increased. From March through to June, delegates act as intermediaries between their assemblies and the administration. Delegates engage in training in city budgetary affairs, understand the limitations of the legal rights of the budgeting process, visit one another’s neighborhoods, and communicate this information back to their own neighborhoods (De Souza Santos, 1998, p. 471).
  4. The rankings are then sent to the municipal administration for compilation. The administration presents the compiled rankings and authorized funds to the second round of district and thematic assemblies. In these assemblies, citizens elect budget councilors to the Budget Council (technically, the “Council of the Participatory Budget”).
  5. The Budget Councilors receive advanced training in budgetary affairs. Meanwhile, the delegates form “Budget Fora” for their districts and themes. The delegates continue to serve as conduits from their neighborhoods, districts, and themes to their corresponding Budget Councilors.
  6. The administration produces project proposals and a coherent budget from the approved community priorities of the assemblies. The budget is submitted to the Budget Council. The Council reviews the document to ensure the inclusion of the ranked and weighted priorities. The Council approves or returns the budget for amendment.
  7. The completed budget is submitted to the municipal legislature for approval.
  8. Once the budget is approved, the Budget Council is responsible for overseeing its implementation. The Council also reviews the participatory budgeting process for democratic participation, inclusion, and efficiency. After a January recess, the Council returns to produce the report reviewed at the beginning of the budgeting cycle, and the process begins again (p. 472).

The process of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre shows its age – it has accumulated numerous tweaks as problems were solved over the course of its 27 years. For example, limiting assemblies and delegates to specific districts reduced the perspective of participants to their own local needs. Delegate visits to other neighborhoods and districts were added so that socio-economically advantaged participants could witness the poverty of many neighborhoods. Another solution was to add the city-wide thematic assemblies in 1994. Yet this added a new wrinkle – these became dominated by the professional classes who had the resources to attend a central city location.

The Effects of Participatory Budgeting

The effects of participatory budgeting in Brazil as a whole became clear by the turn of the century. The most important would be its effect on sanitation. Brazilian cities that have adopted participatory budgeting have shown a significant increase in spending on health and sanitation, especially the expansion of water, sewage, and drainage connections and quality, and waste collection. Municipalities with participatory budgeting increased spending in these areas by as much as 25% above cities with traditional, bureaucratic budgeting processes. This has been the case, regardless of the relative size of the public funds available, or the dominance of the Workers Party and their social-expenditure programs. As a result of this change in budgetary priorities, cities with participatory budgeting saw a decrease in infant mortality by 1 to 3 infants per 1000 living persons (Goncalves, 2009, p. 31).

Beyond the material effects of participatory budgeting, there were also social transformations as well. The budgeting process is one of the most inclusive of Brazil’s democratic experiments. By 2000, in Porto Alegre women, who comprised 55% of the city’s population on average, also made up 55% of the assembly participants and elected delegates. The budgeting institutions were also disproportionately black and lower income. While 11% of the city earned less than twice the minimum wage, and 15% of the city was black, 30% of budgeting participants were low income, and 28% were black. The budgeting assemblies were overwhelming composed of persons who had no more than an eighth-grade background. While only 16% of the city had a similar education, low education citizens comprised 60% of all participants (Baiocchi, 2005, p. 15).

Academics have tried to determine whether the participatory experience had any developmental effects on the participants themselves. Many have concluded that participation helps develop the initiative and skills needed for self-government. Baiocchi notes that there was a rapid increase in the number of civic associations following the implementation of participatory budgeting. The number of neighborhood associations doubled, and the formation of Popular Councils (self-governing political associations) increased from only two districts to three-quarters of all districts (Baiocchi, 2005, p. 42). Citizens typically seem to have difficulty shifting from the position of bitter supplicants to authors of public power, but eventually come to feel a sense of their own potential.

The Porto Alegre Model would be ‘intermediate’ to ‘maximum’ by the scale developed by Cabannes. Its institutions are both intensively and extensively popular. They are intensively popular in the sense that participants have the opportunity of deep commitment to the process, from being a participant, to becoming a delegate, to overseeing the budget implementation itself as a Budget Councilor. The process is also extensively popular in the range of means of citizen involvement – district and thematic assemblies, developing projects, acting as a delegate, and altering the process itself. In terms of participation, Porto Alegre is certainly a ‘maximum arrangement,’ in Cabannes’ terms. However, the participatory process never controlled more than 25% of the capital budget, nor has it been institutionalized as a fixed, legal process.

This last element was once considered one of the Porto Alegre process’ strengths. If the process was not defined by law, then it had the flexibility to be altered in the interests of its participants. Recent events in Brazil have put the lie to that proposition. Although partisans and social actors hostile to participatory budgeting have tolerated it, the expulsion of Dilma Rousseff in the past year is emboldening Brazil’s ruling classes to expunge its democratic forms. Just as the 20th century’s other social advances have been swept away, no matter how deeply entrenched in the culture, so participatory budgeting may be too, despite the will of the people.

Participatory Budgeting International

The Porto Alegre experiment in participatory budgeting came to national and international notice during the 1990’s, earning the approval of the United Nations and the World Bank for its positive effects and democratic foundation. Participatory budgeting has now spread throughout the world, through means both top-down and bottom-up. While this means the spread of democratic practices, it has meant that the process is open to cooptation by centers of power.

Cabannes identifies three competing political values that motivate adoption of participatory budgeting across the nations. First are technocratic reasons for adopting participatory budgeting. The motivation for this is to improve the management of the public budget through transparency and public consultation (Cabannes, 2015, p. 10). Such implementations will likely involve minimal participation and popular initiative but may include the entire municipal budget. This is the case of many German cities. In Germany, for example, participatory budgeting is instituted as a process of popular consultation on the budget, instead of a binding mandate (p. 17). German participatory budgeting is primarily focused on improved management of the public budget (p. 12).

Another motivation for adopting participatory budgeting is the restoration of trust in existing government and social structure. This is the ‘good governance’ model, that will emphasize connecting traditional representative government with its constituents (p. 11). Participation may expand within the limits of existing representative and bureaucratic government. The Peruvian Congress passed a Participatory Budget Law in 2003, instituting civil society input at every level of government for capital investments. However, the model is also explicitly bureaucratic. Rather than open meetings for residents, “Civil Society Organizations” must register to be included, and, while these organizations can recommend projects, the list of projects are determined by government-appointed “technical teams” according to ministry guidelines. The ministry felt that this was necessary to prevent corruption of the process from holdovers of the Fujimori regime, deposed in 2000. However, most observers call Peru’s participatory budgeting process a success. Also, unlike the Porto Alegre model, it has been institutionalized in law (McNulty, 2012, p. 3). Peruvian participatory budgeting has ‘good governance’ as its goal.

Participatory budgeting still has the potential to be revolutionary, or used for ‘political’ motives (Cabannes, 2015, p. 11). The largest experiment in participatory budgeting occurred in the Chinese city of Chengdu, where 17 million peasants and workers were mobilized to participate in long-term investment planning. Surprisingly, the Chengdu process had the right to take on medium-term loans to finance projects, unusual for participatory budgeting, especially so in the context of a one-party state (p. 15).

The United States Model

Participatory Budgeting Comes to the United States

Participatory budgeting came to the United States as a result of the hard work of the Participatory Budgeting Project out of New York City. The first participatory budgeting project was launched in 2012, in Chicago’s 49th ward. As in many US cities, individual city councilors and aldermen have discretionary funds for public investment in their own wards. The alderman for Chicago’s 49th ward, Joe Moore, sought assistance from the Participatory Budgeting Project for applying participatory budgeting to the expenditure of these funds. The 22nd and 45th districts have also adopted the process. In the past 4 years (or 3 cycles of budgeting), Chicagoans have allocated $10 million (Participatory Budgeting in Chicago, n.d.). Participatory budgeting in these districts has persisted despite the hostility and austerity of the Emanuel mayoralty.

The district-by-district model has now been repeated in district 3 in San Francisco, one district in St. Louis, and nine districts in New York City (Peixoto, 2016). The New York City process is the largest in the United States, in terms of population participating and dollars spent, with an emphasis on education (New York City Council, 2016). As yet, only the city of Vallejo, in the Bay Area of California, has implemented participatory budgeting on a city-wide scale. When the city went bankrupt in 2012, it was forced to raise money by an additional 10-year, 1% sales tax. With the additional $3.2 million raised by the tax, the city council decided to submit its expenditure to a participatory budgeting process (Participatory Budgeting Vallejo, 2014).

The Participatory Process

The model of participatory budgeting practiced in the United States is greatly simplified as a result of its limitations to small sums of public money and individual aldermen’s districts. I will illustrate the US Model with that used in the three wards in Chicago.

  1. The Chicago process begins in September with neighborhood assemblies in the given districts. The aldermen or their representatives (members of the Ward Leadership Committee) present basic information on the city budget and the funds available to the district through the alderman’s funds. Community members offer project ideas and volunteer to act as representatives.
  2. The volunteer representatives receive orientation and training and then meet over the next several months (through to March or April of the next year) to elaborate the project ideas into finished proposals. As March approaches, the ward begins an outreach campaign for attendance to the ‘project expos’ held at locations around the ward.
  3. During March and April, expos of project proposals are held, during which attending community members offer feedback.
  4. In May, the final projects are presented to a public ballot. Ward residents vote on which projects deserve to be funded. In Chicago’s first budgeting process, 21 projects were selected, totaling $4 million. Most of these had to do with street repair and safety.
  5. The representatives and the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee oversee implementation and recommend reforms to the process. The Steering Committee is composed of appointees of the alderman (Participatory Budgeting in Chicago, n.d.).

Vallejo, California, is so far the only city to adopt participatory budgeting on a city-wide scale. Few changes were made to the model. Special committees were added for the sake of Spanish-only speakers and for persons under the age of eighteen (Participatory Budgeting Vallejo, 2016). Institutions important to the Porto Alegre Model are absent in the US Model, such as thematic assemblies that cross neighborhoods and a body elected by the participants for governing implementation and evaluation of the budget.

So far, the US Model has all of the elements of a ‘minimum arrangement’ on Cabannes’ table. Project ideas flow from community assemblies to delegates, and developed projects are put to a public vote. Despite its simplicity, the basic process has all the hallmarks of citizen participation. Yet the model continues to face obstacles. First is the lack of public funds that participants have to work with. Most participatory budgeting applications use the discretionary funds of individual city councilors or aldermen. Although the $1.32 million received by each ward sounds impressive, it is a fraction of a fraction of the over $9 billion the city appropriates.

Dependence on well-intentioned city councilors means that not only are participants spending a great deal of time to allocate very little money, the process could disappear when the councilor loses their seat, or changes their mind. Chicago’s 5th ward participated in the initial cycle of budgeting in 2012, but the alderman was not impressed enough with the results for it to continue.

A General Model for Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting can be reduced to a group of participatory institutions and mechanisms applied to the traditional five-step policymaking process.

Policymaking Steps

Each of the following steps can be assigned to either a government office or a participatory body, which we can define as a commission or council elected by assemblies of participants for short periods and with a specific function (such as oversight, intermediation, etc).

  1. Agenda-Setting: setting the background constraints on policy is a difficult case for any democratic process. In order to deliberate, a democracy body must have an agenda that organizes discussion. But to set an agenda, the democratic body would have to deliberate. As yet, the agenda is set by government officials, though the Porto Alegre Model does include materials from the elected Budget Council in its agenda-setting role.
  2. Policy Formulation: developing the budget through the development of projects and the ranking of budgetary priorities is almost always in the hands of the people through their participatory platforms. However, in some cases, this may only be pretense, with the real planning taking place among government technocrats. There are elements of this in the ‘managerial’ and ‘good governance’ styles of participatory budgeting, where the administration takes a leading role.
  3. Policy Legitimation: again, this is almost always a participatory function. A process that only gives this function to the public would be meet the minimal criterion for participation.
  4. Policy Implementation: implementing the budget, as yet, is entirely an administrative function (only in the sense that the government organizes its workforce to put the budget into practice). Yet there have been cases, outside of participatory budgeting, in which the municipal employees organized and managed themselves for the public benefit (for just one account, see Wainwright, 2009).
  5. Policy Monitoring and Evaluation: models are split as to whether the public is competent to evaluate the quality of the budget and its implementation. For a comparison between the Porto Alegre Model and the US Model, see below.

Institutions of Participatory Budgeting

First one must identify where participatory budgeting will be applied. While most discussions of participatory budgeting concern municipal government, participatory budgeting has also been employed to individual organizations (including the Participatory Budgeting Project itself). In fact, the Workers Party adapted the process from the bottom-up policymaking process of its affiliated union. While participatory budgeting is most frequently employed in ‘territorial’ organizations (municipalities, etc), it can also be applied ‘thematically’ (a specific domain, like the environment or infrastructure) and for specific social actors (participatory budgeting for youth, as in Boston (Participatory Budgeting Boston, 2016). For the purposes of concrete discussion, we will continue to assume application to municipal budgets.

The fundamental institution of participatory budgeting is the vehicle for popular participation. There are two dimensions that determine the means of public involvement. First, the fundamental organ of participation might be open to individuals to attend as they see fit. Both the Porto Alegre and the US model hold open geographic assemblies for any resident to visit, and Porto Alegre adds to that open city-wide thematic assemblies. Yet the initial vision of the Porto Alegre government was for the public to participate through civic associations, and only created open district assemblies as a result of the intransigence of the established associations. Peru would eventually pursue this form of participation, as discussed above. To participate in the Peruvian budgeting process, one must be a member of a registered ‘civil society organization’. This is a corporate model of public participation.

The corporate model has the benefit of working with a public already organized by civic associations. However, the open model allows marginalized members of society excluded from the usual channels of social power to find a place where their voice and numbers can be used to upend the distribution of power and resources. Established civic associations will already have a power structure in place that most likely reproduces the social hierarchy of the larger society. This was the case in Porto Alegre, so we will assume that the basic institution of participatory budgeting is an open popular assembly convening the participating members of a subset (a city district) of a whole (a city).

Next, the process requires intermediaries between the popular assemblies and the public administration. The election of delegates by the popular assemblies is invariant among participatory budgeting models. The only difference is the extent of their role and differentiation. In the US Model, the initial community representatives maintain their role throughout the process. In Porto Alegre, a distinction is made between the initial delegates and the Budget Councilors, who become more seriously involved in the second half of the cycle. Delegates remain in the process, but now serve as a conduit between the Budget Council and their assemblies.

Delegates and other participatory agents vary across models as to the length of their term. The length and limit of the number of terms alter the distribution of skills developed. Longer and more terms lead to a small number of experienced and more capable participants, while shorter and fewer terms lead to a larger number of less capable participants.

Most models have a body for oversight of not only the implementation of the budget but also the budgeting process itself.  The Porto Alegre Model is interesting in that it is self-regulating. The Budget Council itself judges the performance of the process, even though they are also the beneficiaries of it. A major democratic deficit in the US Model is that this body is appointed by the administration. In Vallejo, the city manager appoints the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee from civic associations. In Chicago, the alderman’s office creates a Ward Leadership Committee. If this deficit is to be corrected, a participatory commission elected by participants from participants should be established after the first or second cycle of a new process.

Conclusion: Taking the Radical Leap to Participatory Administration

While participatory budgeting continues to expand, we have seen the challenges that it faces in the battle for democracy. Participatory budgeting processes are buffeted by the starved public budgets of neoliberal austerity, bureaucratic cooptation, and the hostile machinations of anti-democratic forces. The proper response to such obstacles is to increase the demands for democracy and the intensity of struggle.

Simply attempting to defend the original limitations of participatory budgeting would be an error. If we manage to parry an attack, we should not miss the opportunity to push the opponent back. When anti-democratic forces attempt to coopt and derail participatory budgeting, the democratic movement should increase the scope of its demands. Instead of merely protecting participatory budgeting as it stands, the democratic movements should insist on complete participatory administration, beginning with municipalities.

Participatory administration is a rare mutation of participatory experimentation that took place in the city of Camaragibe, Brazil. Participatory experiments in Brazil often started with health care policy, and participatory administration spread from the institution of the city’s Health Council. The Health Council is a policymaking body composed of representatives of health-oriented community organizations. Every year, the Health Council would convene an open conference to consult the citizens and produce binding health policy for the city government.

In 1997, the new mayor, Paulo Santana, expanded the same process to all other public services, creating policymaking councils that consult the public through open, annual conferences. A final Plan of Projects is produced at a City Congress of all councilors and any (non-voting) observers that care to attend. The Plan of Projects is then passed to the government to implement. According to Baocchi (2011), the municipal administration applies the policy guidelines of the participatory conferences and councils (though organized along a corporate model of civic association representatives).

These and similar revolutionary democratic transformations of the state are essential to a future of freedom, equality, and justice. Participatory budgeting has demonstrated that people as a whole have the capacity to govern and manage their collective lives. There is no longer any need to doubt our public capacities for self-management. There is no reason to stop until the state is subsumed by a universal participatory and popular democracy.


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Additional Resources

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Allegretti, Giovanni and Carsten Herzberg (2004). “Participatory Budgets in Europe: Between Efficiency and Growing Local Democracy.” Booklet presented for the Transnational Institute and the Center for Democratic Policy-Making, TNI Briefing Series, No 2004/5.

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Sintomer, Yves; Herzberg, Carsten; Röcke, Anja; and Allegretti, Giovanni (2012). “Transnational Models of Citizen Participation: The Case of Participatory Budgeting,” Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 9. Available at:

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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.)