Tag Archives: participatory democracy

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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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.

Participatory Representation in Action!

A specter is haunting the Western Hemisphere – the specter of democracy! Participatory democracy continues to march across Latin America!

Regular readers will remember my proposal for participatory representation. Participatory representation solves the problems that make electoral representation ineffective. Participatory representation differs from existing electoral representation by organizing the public to directly develop national policy with their representatives.

We all know that existing forms of electoral representation are ineffective for public decision-making. The United States government has now become a den of corruption, but electoral representation has not worked satisfactorily in most nations. Elite-types enter here and mock the intelligence and rationality of the average voter. In fact, voters make the best choices they can given the limited availability of trustworthy political information. We need to count on the representatives to present themselves and their policy intentions with accuracy. But candidates for election have every reason to mislead the voters. Furthermore, the organization of the public into two political parties lead voters to make choices based on group membership. People look for signs and symbols of affiliation, because good reasons and accurate information are in short supply.

Participatory representation organizes and connects the voter to the representative. Voters assemble for the nomination of candidates from their own number, develop policies based on felt needs, and remain organized to oversee the activity of their representative in the assembly. This process gives the public the organizational capacity to acquire accurate information, have a role in shaping national policy, and effectively reward and penalize their representative in enacting that policy.

Well great news! The influence of Democracy in Principle is global! Participatory representation is a reality in Cartagena de Indias, a city of one million people in Colombia. Kind of.

According to Germán Ruiz, during the 2011 race for mayor, one candidate held deliberative forums as part of his campaign. Dionisio Vélez and his campaign staff organized 200 public forums in which citizens could identify their own needs, shape the policies to meet those needs, and even develop the arguments the candidate should make for his platform. This even led to the development of a different kind of language used in the race. The people, collectively, were more sophisticated than the politicians. For example, the people knew that crime was a social problem, not a problem of personal failings.

Vélez was elected mayor of Cartagena des Indias in 2013.

Sadly, this participatory mechanism is the tool of a lone politician. Perhaps, once other candidates see how popular the forums are, they will begin to hold their own. We have seen the same trend in the United States with participatory budgeting. Once Chicago alderman Joe Moore introduced participatory budgeting, other councilors wanted the same popularity and brought participatory budgeting to theirs.

I am concerned that we have seen this play out with participatory budgeting in Brazil. Participatory budgeting is not institutionalized, but instead relies on the cooperation of the municipal governments and community associations. Once the Workers’ Party was out of power, participatory budgeting stagnated under anti-democratic municipal governments. As long as a participatory practice relies on the goodwill of particular political factions, it will only be temporary.

Second, the participatory projects are projects of a political faction and not the population as a whole. Part of the purpose of participation is to draw together a diverse population. A population of different types of people are typically more fruitful than a population of one type of people. When Americans from many different backgrounds gather to address specific problems concretely, they will produce a robust consensus on practical policy. If Republicans spend all of their time with Republicans, and Democrats with Democrats, they will produce the open carry movement and the Democratic Leadership Council, respectively. In the case of Cartagenas’ deliberative forums, a single, innovative candidate may have attracted a politically diverse population to the participatory process. If multiple candidates hold forums, the forum process will definitely fracture across partisan lines.

Any participatory project must include two principles. First, the project must be established in law eventually if it is to avoid being the product of political patronage. If the project is brought into the world by politicians, then it will be taken out by their opponents. Second, the project must belong to the whole community and not a faction. If the project belongs to a faction, then the project may break along partisan lines. This would be undesirable for both the efficiency and the perceived legitimacy of the participatory project. Some might raise the concern that requiring such projects to belong to the whole community gives too much to the ruling classes. But we do not need to worry about this. Any project that is truly democratic will belong to the people.

Saturday in the Park: People Learning to Be Citizens

(Please excuse the long absence, as Democracy in Principle has been having technical difficulties.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled democracy.)

Participation does make better citizens. I believe it, but I can’t prove it. And neither can anyone else. The kinds of subtle changes in character that come about, slowly, from active, powerful participation in democratic decisions cannot easily be measured with the blunt instruments of social science. Those who have actively participated in democratic governance, however, often feel that the experience has changed them. And those who observe the active participation of others often believe that they see its longrun effects on the citizens’ character.

Jane Mansbridge, “Does Participation Make Better Citizens?

The presentations at the Participatory Budgeting Conference all seemed to be timed so close together.  Surely I wouldn’t make it across even Loyola’s small Chicago campus in time for the session I had planned to attend.  And with my heavy bag, I didn’t really feel like trying too much.  This one, about “citizenship learning”, sounded interesting, and it’s right next door.

This turned out to be my favorite session of the conference; these little bits of serendipity are what life is all about.  The presentations on “Citizenship Learning” asked, “what do citizens learn from democratic practice?”  As we’ll see, I think we can express what we want to know in a way that is more testable.

Both Daniel Shugurensky and Jose Melendez are researchers in the effects of participation in democratic forums, particularly participatory budgeting, on the education and development of the participants.  Shugurensky conducts in-depth interviews and surveys to determine what the participants themselves believe that they learn from the experience.  Melendez records every participatory session and analyzes the change in language and behavior of the participants.

Daniel Shugurensky introduced the Mansbridge Challenge, which is captured in the first sentences at the opening of this article.  “Participation does make better citizens.  I believe it, but I can’t prove it.  And neither can anyone else.”  Both Shugurensky and Melendez offer evidence in favor of Mansbridge’s hypothesis.  Shugurensky recounted the story of a middle-class woman whose budget assembly was mostly in the slums.  She said that she was glad that the vote was by secret ballot, because she voted for the projects of the poor, and not those of her own class.  Once she had been afraid of the poor in the slums of her city, but now she empathized.  Likewise, both researchers see more confidence in the behaviors of the participants.  Both researchers see a change in the use of pronouns, as participants begin to use “I” less and “we” more.  And different classes of people learn different things – while the lower classes learn how the government works, the middle class learns to shut up and listen.

There are two main problems with the line of research pursued.  The first is that there are a lot of confounding variables that should make us uncertain about the relationship between democratic participation and education, learning, or personal development.  After all, most people form group bonds and identities if they work with others, and, in turn, they might feel more confident.  But this has nothing to do with democratic participation in particular; it is just as true of authoritarian groups.

The second problem is the formulation of the issue.  Education, learning, and development all point to the improvement and acquisition of knowledge or practical skills.  But people already have, say, empathy.  We just tend to have trouble using it until we’re staring someone in the face.  Perhaps the woman in the story above simply found new objects for her empathy, but did not expand her empathy in general.  But the central problem here is the framing of the issue as one of improvement, which is a value-laden concept.  How do we know when someone has improved or grown, without first defining what is to be learned?

I propose that a better question is: how does someone’s thinking change as a result of democratic practices?  Psychology has well-established ways of testing changes in cognition.  Suppose we want to test whether a participant’s empathy has expanded more generally than simply towards the other participants  The sign of increased empathy would be the greater incidence of helping behaviors towards strangers.

The experiment would then introduce helping tests between experimental groups and control groups.  The experimental group would be persons having attended democratic assemblies (popular assemblies, not representative or other bodies).  For this, we can use the assemblies of participatory budgeting, but there are also other popular democratic bodies to engage.  The control group would be ordinary persons, or persons leaving other groupings of people.

The intervention would take advantage of an experimental confederate in distress.  The confederate would have to be placed just so, so that distance from the observed subject is removed as a confounding factor.  (Distance is a known factor in whether or not someone helps another.)  The confederate makes plain their fake distress and the subject either goes to see what’s wrong or does not.  This experimental method might be familiar, as it has been used to demonstrate that irrelevant factors, like finding a dime, will increase the likelihood of helping a stranger in distress.  Hopefully for democratic theory, participating in a popular assembly will have the same effect.

As an experiment in the field, such an experiment would also have challenging confounding variables to control.  For one thing, participants in participatory budgeting may be already more altruistic.  Meanwhile, the control groups will have their own psychological changes depending on the context of the administered test.  If we were to take our controls from persons leaving a sporting event, for example, the competitive nature of sport might cause its participants to be significantly less helpful.

The benefit of such an experiment is that we introduce an intervention that has the potential to determine causation, if the bugs can be worked out.  The pure observation that Shugurensky and Melendez undertake, while limited, provides us with a rich source of hypotheses.  They also have the benefit of tracking the development, real or perceived, of democratic participants over time.  My suggested experiment does not track the long-term effects of democratic participation.

In truth though, I actually doubt that such changes would be permanent.  Without the repeated exposure of participants to democratic conditions, any cognitive changes would atrophy.  If we are altered by our systems of institutional practices, as Mansbridge rightly claimed, then democracy must be a permanent feature of social life for our character to be transformed.

The remainder of the day was uneventful.  In the midst of final panel, I left, whispering my farewells to now familiar faces.  I walked along the streets forever trying to catch a taxi – how can Chicago call itself a great city if you can’t grab a taxi off the street?  But finally I found a cab to take to the nightmare that is the O’Hare airport.  Eventually… eventually, the plane arrived to take weary night-travellers back to Richmond.

(I took a Jet to leave Chicago)


Saturday in the Park: Ping-Pong versus Potholes

It was indeed an early morning in Chicago as the terrible gray light of morning dragged me from my brief sleep.  The night before I had joined a fellow democracy-enthusiast for drinks.  After a night navigating Chicago, we settled in a bar that hovered between beards-and-denim on the hand and collared shirts on the other.  Sleep didn’t settle into my bones until mid-morning, so I knew Saturday was going to be tough.  At some point that afternoon, I sat in a big comfy chair and fell asleep, right there in the middle of the university campus.

(This music plays in Chicago all the time… in my head)

I had come to Chicago’s Loyola University for the Participatory Budgeting Conference, to engage other people in the field of citizens governing themselves, or at least their city’s capital budgets.  The day’s conference began with an opening plenary that included Joe Moore, the city councilor who brought participatory budgeting to the United States, and the academics, organizers, and activists behind PB Chicago. read more »

Response at “Notes on a Theory”

My Illustration of Democratic Efficiency versus Inefficiency

David Kaib, of “Notes on a Theory”, has written a response to my use of his phrase “democratic efficiency”.  Internet fame!

In my previous post, I discussed the idea of “democratic efficiency”.  Here’s what I wrote:

Participatory processes are intended to improve the democratic efficiency of representative institutions.  By “efficiency”, we do not mean that the benefits exceed their cost, as we usually might.  Instead, “democratic efficiency” refers to the degree to which the results of the democratic process reflect the will of the people.  If we conceive of the state as a system, citizens’ preferences are “inputs” and state action is “output”.  The most efficient system would translate citizens’ preferences into an act that accurately reflects those preferences taken as a whole.

For example, in the United States, our institutions are democratically inefficient.  As I wrote long ago in that linked article, there are many intermediaries between my vote and my legislator’s or executive’s decisions.  Campaign funding, think tanks, lobbyists, class interest, gender biases, racial inequality all distort the transformation of the individual will into collective will.  Those intermediaries reduce the democratic efficiency of the state.

Now, David Kaib has been using the phrase “democratic efficiency” as a critique and a myth.  He is responding to the type of people who say that “don’t blame the politicians, they’re just doing what the people vote for!”  (Even more obnoxious are the pundits who write, “if you want to see where the problems come from, look in the mirror!”).  And so recently he wrote a response to my interpretation of the idea.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to understand “democratic efficiency” in a normative way.  That is, what ought the state look like if it is democratically efficient?  And in my post on Participatory Administration, I admit that I oversimplified.  I claimed that citizens are putting their preferences into the political system to get something out that resembles their preferences taken as a whole.  But as David points out in his post on democratic efficiency, people don’t just have preferences built in that need to be aggregated.  People already live in institutions and occupy roles and positions that shape their preferences and perspectives.  However, this complicates a normative conception of democratic efficiency.

I wrote this in the comments on David’s post:

All of these are excellent points!

I do agree that we should not view people as having endogenous or pre-existing preferences that they bring to the voting booth.  People are embedded in social relationships and institutions, in positions and roles that shape their preferences, motivations, and perspective.  The economic viewpoint that entered political thought as rational choice theory has oversimplified complex social interactions into individuals interacting as atoms in the void.

In fact, my hope and expectation is that people will be changed by deliberative and participatory institutions.  The evidence from the participation literature, including the Baiocchi et al book I cite on my post, is that properly designed participatory mechanisms can improve civil society.  Meanwhile, the research on deliberation (Fishkin and such) reveals that people’s perspectives are changed through discussion.  On the assumption that some degree of “public virtue” is required for a democratic society, these are desirable transformations of preferences.

Of course, none of this is obvious in the article that you linked.  I am as guilty of oversimplifying the situation myself!  I used the term “preferences” in the absence of a more fully worked-out conception of how individuals should relate to an institution, in this case, the state institution.  However, once complexity is brought in, my positive view of democratic efficiency breaks down.  What, exactly, are individuals coming together to transform into collective action?  Will?  Action?  Power?

None of that is necessary for an empirical understanding of social institutions, of course.  But from a perspective of political philosophy, I want to be able to identify the legitimate relationship between the individual and the state.

My question for you, David, is: do you think that there can be a positive concept of democratic efficiency?  Or is it something that can only ever be a myth?

Return to Camaragibe!

Camaragibe’s Participatory Administration

Reflections on Participatory Administration

Previously we discussed the unique “participatory administration” of Camaragibe, Brazil.  Participatory administration is simply the extension of the participatory budgeting model to municipal administration generally.  Participatory administration involves all of the standard participatory social mechanisms, including open popular assemblies that determine needs, plumb ideas, and elect delegates.  The delegates work with the city’s administration to adapt popular plans for technical feasibility.  The whole process starts again with the popular assemblies evaluating the results of the process and making changes and new plans accordingly.

All cities have to adapt participatory processes to their own social circumstances, and Camaragibe in the 90’s was no different.  According to Baiocchi et al (2011), the northeast of Brazil in general was underdeveloped and local politics is in the grip of an electoral oligarchy of feuding families.  Social movements in the Brazilian northeast are dependent on the patronage and clientelism of political parties and personalities, and so were largely demobilized.  Camaragibe’s health movement was the exception, and its leader, Paulo Santana, snuck democracy in through the back door.  First, he was head of the city’s participatory Health Council, and then, in 1997, was elected mayor on the platform of instituting Participatory Administration.  Participatory administration, like participatory budgeting, is successful when compared to other Brazilian cities, but concerns about its democratic potential remain.  Baiocchi, Heller, and Silva in particular categorize Camaragibe as an “affirmative democracy” whose participatory organization is “institutionalized” but “dependent”.  That the process is institutionalized means that the City Council is required to obey the results of the participatory process.  However, the process, and the civic associations (“civil society”) involved, is dependent upon the city government for leadership.  The democratic hope is that the government becomes dependent upon civil society.

The causes of this dependency on the government can be traced to the organization of the participatory administration process.  Participatory administration is innovative and beneficial.  However, certain aspects of the process displace leadership from the people to the government.  These design flaws reduce the “democratic efficiency” of participatory administration.

Democratic Efficiency and the Chain of Sovereignty

Participatory processes are intended to improve the democratic efficiency of representative institutions.  By “efficiency”, we do not mean that the benefits exceed their cost, as we usually might.  Instead, “democratic efficiency” refers to the degree to which the results of the democratic process reflect the will of the people.  If we conceive of the state as a system, citizens’ preferences are “inputs” and state action is “output”.  The most efficient system would translate citizens’ preferences into an act that accurately reflects those preferences taken as a whole.

For example, in the United States, our institutions are democratically inefficient.  As I wrote long ago in that linked article, there are many intermediaries between my vote and my legislator’s or executive’s decisions.  Campaign funding, think tanks, lobbyists, class interest, gender biases, racial inequality all distort the transformation of the individual will into collective will.  Those intermediaries reduce the democratic efficiency of the state.

(The phrase “democratic efficiency” comes to us from David Kaib, at Notes on a Theory.  I recommend it!)

Democratic Efficiency versus Inefficiency

Baiocchi, Heller, and Silva invoke a similar notion they call the “chain of sovereignty”.  The chain of sovereignty is the path that preferences travel from system component to system component (perhaps ‘node’).  In the case of participatory budgeting and administration, preferences are voiced, aggregated, and transformed at popular assemblies, moved to delegated councils, and so on through the process.  The more components in the system, the longer the chain.

For participatory processes, we seek a chain of sovereignty that maximizes democratic efficiency.  Short chains do not necessarily result in democratic efficiency.  For example, popular referenda are very short chains of sovereignty, because they are simply an initiative that the people vote on and the government enforces.  However, the same intermediaries distort the formation of the collective will.  The media controls the debate, wealthy organizations use their resources to dominate the discourse, and the bureaucracy drafts a ballot that confuses the voter.  Thus, the chain of sovereignty for referenda is short, but the democratic efficiency can be low.

How long is the chain of sovereignty for Camaragibe’s participatory administration, and is it democratically efficient?  Let’s look at the bottlenecks.


A delegate is a specific type of representative.  Typically, delegates are representatives that can be given instructions on how to vote or otherwise conduct themselves in their decision-making roles.  This is unlike the role that our elected representatives play in Congress, for one example.  Congressional representatives have taken the role of “trustees”, whose vote and decision is their own (and the corporations who buy them).

The delegates in participatory budgeting are expected to act according to the wishes of the popular assembly, and to return with accurate information from their meetings with other delegates and city administration.  This is also the case with Camaragibe’s participatory administration.  In most models of participatory budgeting, delegates are elected for a two-year term.  But in Camaragibe, delegates are elected for a four-year term.  This is a bottleneck in the system!

These days, people have little concern over the length or number of terms.  Once, democratic revolutionaries demanded “annual” parliaments or assemblies.  That means that the public elected their representatives every year.  Democrats of the past also demanded term limits.  These past democrats knew that for democracy to persist, representative institutions had to avoid the professionalization of politics.  The two-year term of the US House of Representatives, shorter than most of the world’s legislatures, is an artifact of this time.

With long terms to which the representative could be elected over and over, there are two effects.  First, political experience becomes the province of the few, and we defer to those with experience.  Second, the repeated meeting of those few form social networks that become too cozy and incestuous.  These effects create private interests – satisfying allies, personal ideologies, and protecting social status – that become distinct from the public interest.

Long terms also result in a loss to the important functions of elections.  Elections are meant to provide some measurement of public opinion.  Granted, this is only true ideally, in a world where candidates for election express their intentions truthfully and the electorate has an adequate understanding of social problems.  In any case, elections are supposed to provide information about the various electorates, based on whom they elect.  Also, the prospect of reelection is meant to provide incentives to the representative for obeying the ostensible wishes of the electorate.  Short, limited terms increase the frequency of ‘measurements’ taken and thus timelier information on the public mood and will.  Furthermore, more frequent elections provide more frequent rewards and punishments to the representative.  A limited number of terms entail that the representative has a limited number of chances to get it right.

Camaragibe, like many contemporary political designers, ignored these general principles.  Delegates in the participatory administration process have four-year terms, much like many parliamentary representatives in the world today.  Delegates receive no pay, but nevertheless acquire empowering political experience and increased access to the professional administration.  These advantages need to circulate widely among a population to produce democratic efficiency.

Democracy requires the broad distribution of political experience, and the absence of strong social networks among the positions of power.  The former brings confidence and engagement, the latter prevents political collusion.  The traditional solution of “rotation in office” is still a good one, even if it’s largely scorned.  Rotation in office is especially required for participatory democracy, if it is to remain participatory.

Top-Down, Not Bottom-Up?

The election of delegates is one element in a more general problem.  The initiative in participatory administration comes from the top, and not the bottom.  Municipal Councils, while composed of civil society representatives, call and lead their citizens’ conferences.  Delegates call their district assemblies.  These functions reverse the flow of leadership that would be appropriate to a democratic process.

As with most participatory models, participatory administration is for sharing in the management of the city with the existing representative bodies.  Mayors and city councils were vital leaders at the beginning of these experiments.  Yet they become not only superfluous, but also dangerous to popular power.  On the one hand, they become unneeded when the city council begins rubberstamping the decisions of the participatory process.  On the other hand, the continued existence of participatory institutions relies on the discretion of the mayors and city councilors.  Only the great popularity of participatory budgeting or administration prevents the elected offices from altering them.  But the success of such participatory programs proves that the people can rule through them.  Traditional representative bodies are best replaced by popular ones.

The motivation for designing a top-down participatory administration is perhaps that, as said above, the civil society of the area is largely quiet.  Perhaps the initial designers believed that civil society required government leadership to mobilize.  However, the world has a good sample of cities with participatory budgeting.  We can be confident that instituting participatory processes will cause civil society to become more self-assured.  This assumes that the participatory process allows civic associations to take the lead.  Otherwise, as in Camaragibe, the public will be dependent on a new layer of administration.

Realizing the Promise of Participatory Administration

Participatory administration is leaps and bounds beyond what we experience in most putatively democratic states.  None of what I have said should take away from that.  But when we import the model to the cities of the United States, we must be sure not to repeat its mistakes.

Participatory Administration (Adjusted for Democratic Efficiency)

Adjusting the model of participatory administration is simple, beyond just shortening the terms of delegates.  We only need to take each component and flip it on its head.  The Municipal Councils no longer call citizens’ conferences and delegates no longer call assemblies.  Rather, the assemblies call them.  More specifically, city-wide departmental assemblies elect the Municipal Councils and the district assemblies elect delegates for one-year terms.  Furthermore, the annual congress takes control of the administration away from traditional office-holders.

Participatory democrats often assure their readers that participatory mechanisms do not replace representative institutions, only improve and repair them.  The radical democratic-republican has greater ambitions.  The local level holds the greatest promise of actual popular self-rule.  Elected city councils, mayors, and county commissions can be replaced by congresses and forums of responsible delegates with a limited number of short terms of office.  City councils may provide initial leadership to the participatory process, but become superfluous once the public has control.  The roadblocks to democratic efficiency are must be swept away, and the chain of sovereignty unbroken.

A program for democracy must include the popular conquest of power in cities and localities.  A minimal program ought to involve the implementation of participatory budgeting, with increasing control over larger amounts of municipal money.  Popular power expands through the application to the general administration of local government.  While I have not yet addressed the issue of the relationship of popular power to the public services, I promise to do so in the future.

This has been an exercise in evaluating an experiment in the potential for modern democracy.  Such exercises provide us with insight into the principles of democracy by the design of that experiment.  The design of participatory administration shows us these principles not only in its successes, but also in what it lacked.  From such evaluations, we should be optimistic about the future of democratic society.


David Kaib at Notes on a Theory

Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Patrick Heller, and Marcelo K. Silva.  Bootstrapping Democracy: Transforming Local Governance and Civil Society in Brazil.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Developing a Model of Participatory Democracy

How about those debates?  Yeeeesh.  Presidential democracy is the worst.  Let’s figure out how a real democracy might work, one that isn’t watching monsters and idiots on television.

The following are notes in my ongoing project to understand how a genuine democracy can be constructed in a modern nation.  A genuine democracy involves the participation of the people in public reasoning beyond the mere representation that generates parasitic political and bureaucratic classes.  To win the battle for democracy, we must find the institutional forms that represent the most thorough-going democracy. read more »

What is Democracy in the Twenty-first Century?

It's empty at the moment...

The first article on Philosophyhelmet was “What is Democracy?” but I’ll admit that I talked more about what democracy was not.  I had written that the very idea of democracy had been transformed since its conceptual origins in ancient Greece to the liberal commonwealths of modern Great Britain and the United States, and all their subsequent imitators.  The modern concept of democracy only demands that people vote in minimally competitive elections.  In fact, many modern political theorists will claim that the non-participation of the people in general improves the efficiency of government.  All the people need to do is to select a competent manager.  The liberty of the people is satisfied in their ability to get what they want in the marketplace and other private spheres.  This modern concept of sham-democracy I termed “liberal oligarchy”.  This is not an oligarchy of liberals, but rather an institutional order that combines the classical liberal theory of freedom with rule by an elected elite.

However, this does not satisfy the requirements of any substantive concept of liberty.  A people that does not govern itself completely is not a free people.  Being relegated to a private sphere does not give any person free reign to pursue their idea of the good life.  The ancient Athenians realized this, as Aristotle reports in his political works.  Even putting aside the assembly of the whole citizenry in the Acropolis, which as many will point out is possible only in a small state, the ancient democracies (mainly classical Athens) had greater expectations for the participation of the citizens in all of its branches of government.  Participation in the state was the mark of a free person, because a citizen was not ruled by others.

But that was democracy then, what about now? read more »