Popular Democracy by Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza


In this post Ernesto Ganuza and Gianpaolo Baiocchi begin our third instalment of CURA’s Book Debates series by outlining the main argument in their recently co-authored book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation” – where they trace the development of participatory governance, focusing specifically on the paradigmatic process of Participatory Budgeting, its origins in the Southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, and its subsequent globalization as it travelled to European and North American cities. In a forthcoming post, CURA’s Adrian Bua will write a response and Ernesto and Gianpaolo will close the debate with a reply.

No one can escape the fact that we live in an era where calls for participation are ubiquitous. Participation is seen as the solution to the failings of democracy and a weakened civic spirit. Today, political actors, from specialists to politicians and administrators, compete to bear the heraldry of participation. We are talking about a new political hegemony.

This participatory era rests on new kinds of participatory processes that are different in spirit to those in the 70’s. Participation nowadays focusses on the public in general, in the form of deliberative spaces in which individuals, rather than civic associations, are invited to reflect on public affairs, and, in many cases to make policy decisions.  A direct form of participation is invoked that breaks with the tradition of relegating participation to a mere measure of public opinion.

However, viewed historically, this expansion of participation is somewhat paradoxical. Participation has ceased to be a counter-power like that of the 1970’s, and has become part of the functioning of administration and formal political power. It is a process of top-down democratization. Beginning with the revolts of the seventies against centralized bureaucracies, public administration has found in participation a faithful ally in its attempt to become more proximate to society, and realise the need for the public legitimation of politics. Participatory rhetoric has changed the hallmark with which it was usually presented – from prostesting, to proposing. Participation in the new spaces is not a matter of oppositional reclamation, but of constructive proposition.

Criticisms of this historical process have by no means been delayed. Both the content and context of this new political hegemony have been linked to the predatory spirit of neoliberalism. After all, participation’s logic is close to neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial spirit – do it yourself! This criticism is most forceful in a context in which the political impact of participation in cities is doubted. Just when there is no city in the world that does not invite citizens to participate, participation has lost its social justice focus, and provides spaces for consumerist disputes instead.

Faced with this all-engulfing neoliberal wave, the book explores the birth and journey of one of the most emblematic participatory processes; that of participatory budgeting. As a metaphor for this new political hegemony, we have seen how the travel of participation leads to its trivialization and disengagement from political processes as it lands on new shores. In this process, full of contradictions and popular struggles between lay citizens and elites such as experts, bureaucrats and politicians, the dilemma of participation’s neo-liberalization comes into view.

The problem of participation lies in thinking about the link between opinion and power only in terms of the relationship between citizens and representatives, without taking into account how political institutions work. Participation then becomes limited to a process for revealing public preferences. As good as that may be for some, it forgets all the second-order issues involved in politics: priorities must be defined in a (democratic) setting characterised by the equality of all and the existence of finite resources. It is therefore not enough to count proposals, nor to turn participation into a zero-sum game. You win, I lose. Information and debate are needed before deciding. A practical and material concept of the equality that offers everybody a real voice is needed. Therefore, it is not surprising that if we understand participation as an expression of individual preferences, in this context of finite resources, participatory processes become platforms for the selfish pursuit of individual interests.

Participation aims to build bridges between politics and society, but when it is disconnected from institutions it can degenerate into fatuous disputes. In other words, if participation is to claim a legitimate presence in contemporary society it will need to be linked to the workings of public administration. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop administrative reforms that envisage a participatory modus operandi. Otherwise participation will always be peripheral to both politics and social developments – and will thus fail to resolve democracy’s problems and the need for the public legitimation of political decisions.

Gianpolo Baiocchi is associate professor of individualized studies and sociology, as well as director of the Urban Democracy Lab and Civic Engagement at the, Gallatin School, New York University.

Ernesto Ganuza is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Social Studies, Spanish National Research Council (IESA- CSIC) in Cordoba, Spain.

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