Popular Democracy – Response by Adrian Bua

In this post Adrian Bua continues CURA’s third book debate by replying to Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza’s first post outlining the argument in their recent book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation”.

Popular Democracy deals with an important question for contemporary debates on democratisation – what is the democratic potential of participatory governance in a context of deepening neo-liberalism? To answer this the book develops a history of changes in public administration theory and practice, and then focuses specifically on the origins and travel of Participatory Budgeting (PB) from Porto Alegre in Brazil to Cordoba in Europe and Chicago in North America. In doing so, the authors draw on years of research into participatory governance including ethnographies in the European and North American case studies.

On one hand, Popular Democracy tells a story of the neo-liberal usurpation of what was originally a radical and innovative attempt to revive the socialist project in the context of disillusionment with the pseudo-socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and elsewhere. However, as is clear from the author’s first post, as PB travelled the globe, it became disconnected from its original attempt to provide a collective space for the pursuit of distributive justice, to one oriented towards the individual expression of preferences (for an overview of this process of disconnection see here). On the other hand, the book also tells a more positive story about possibilities opened up by PB. In this post I invite the authors to elaborate upon the implications of their arguments for (a) the potential and limits of institutional design, and (b) the relationship between social struggle and participatory governance, and the role of the former in generating opportunities for empowerment.

First, a key argument of the book is that institutional design matters. Thus, as Ernesto and Gianpaolo argue in their initial entry, if participation is to be a genuinely democratising force, it should be clearly linked to binding decisions of state administration, which itself must adopt a participatory ‘modus operandi’  to accommodate participatory inputs. For reasons I won’t repeat here, but have summarised in another review, this was achieved in Porto Alegre – which turns minds to the claim that processes and institutions can be designed by elites to empower citizens. This is a key tenet of “top-down democratisation”.  I would like to ask the authors, firstly, to what extent is success down to the technicalities of getting the institutional design “right”, or is it more to do with politics? The second question is about how far institutional design can go – to what extent can a well-designed Participatory Budget influence fundamental questions about political economy, including how resources are distributed; where economic power lies? The challenge here might be that there is space for participatory governance in times of plenty, but it hits the buffers when resources are scarce and there is more conflict over both the size of budgets and distribution.

International research into collaborative governance led by us at CURA broaches the question of what happens to collaborative practice and ideology during capitalist busts – in times such as the present one, of low growth and austerity. Our cases vary. To give two examples, in the UK it is clear that participatory governance has lost the normative power it once had amongst local state actors. It has become a tool for the local state to manage the consequences of, and adapt to, austerity and scarcity – a far cry away from the empowering and democratising claims associated with it in earlier times. However, in Barcelona, municipal government is experimenting with radicalised forms of participatory governance. Although hopeful, this experiment is severely limited. It is a crosscurrent, even if a strong one, to a hostile Spanish state which continues to deepen neo-liberalism. Still, the fact that such experiments are taking place in various Spanish cities indicates a more generalised ambition for a more participatory democracy and an alternative, more socially just, political economy.

The experience in Barcelona, and Spain more broadly, is rooted in the oppositional and pre-figurative politics of post-crash social movements based around the 15-M demonstrations. The influence of PB upon these social movements is alluded to in the book, which argues that despite their clear limitations, the experience of US and Spanish PB ignited a radicalism which lived on in mass mobilisations such as occupy in the US and the indignados in Spain. It evoked new political subjects and expanded social imaginaries beyond the boundaries of representation in ways that contributed to the alternatives proposed by these movements. This is an interesting argument because critics of elite democracy promotion (or ‘governance-driven democratisation’ for others) argue that it forecloses, and diverts energy away from, more critical and bottom up forms of participation and struggle which have historically been perhaps the main democratising force. Given the different outcomes observed in our own research, at which point, and why, do the authors think that the demands they made translated into this substantive reform agenda within formal political institutions? At the level of direct participants this seems counter-intuitive – surely, taking part in the kinds of individualised, zero-sum processes the authors describe in their initial post must be a disappointing and disempowering experience? I would like to ask the authors to expand on how is it that more radical and democratic subjects emerge from this, particularly in light of the much-discussed diminution out of the Porto-Alegre model?

This question brings me to my final point.  Ernesto and Gianpaolo’s account points to a non-dichotomous, even complementary, relationship between top-down and bottom-up spaces of participation. Municipal governments like Barcelona en Comu and Ahora Madrid evidence this kind of relationship – they are rooted in grassroots oppositional politics, but now engage in institutional design and policy making. Their move into the state means a move “from protest to proposition”. At the end of the book the authors argue that the challenge for the future is to make the most of the critical energies summoned by participatory experiences like PB. I would like to close by asking what advice the authors have for radical administrations currently experimenting with participatory governance.  Do they think that this participatory milieu in urban governance can be shored up and avoid neo-liberal co-option – and what is the role, if any, for critical and oppositional forms of participation and social struggle in this?

One respondent from the fieldwork in Barcelona (see p. 17 here), put the contextual challenges faced by this project well:

“The tools are very tiny and the expectations are great. How can the City Council of a city that is globally located on the map of the relevant cities in the world, which attracts migratory flows, capital flows… how can it manage a power that it does not have? The City Council does not have the power of the city. It is a very small portion of power”.

Adrian Bua is a researcher and a core member of CURA.

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