Democracy-Driven Governance and Decommodification

Authored by Nick Vlahos

The forthcoming edited volume, Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, provides a conversation about how political economy overlaps with public participation and deliberation. This is relevant because democratic innovation research suffers from a lack of theoretical, analytical, and empirical engagement with critical research on capitalism.

My contribution to the goals of the volume stem from a perspective that the ends of participatory and deliberative governance (PDG) should entail the decommodification of social well-being.

In capitalist societies, PDG exists in contexts where the pathologies stemming from market-based ideology and strategies of economic adjustment have led to poverty and social exclusion. Governments and public administrations support the structural reproduction of gross inequalities. This has adverse implications on the potential for democratic innovations to deepen and reimagine the participatory and deliberative role of citizens in representative democracies.

Considering PDG is embedded within capitalist economies, we need to be more critical and thorough in how we account for the intersections of capitalism and democracy. A foundational problem of capitalist democracy is the coexistence of formal political equality with socio-economic inequality. As a result, capitalist democracy cannot be comprehensively understood without recognizing how structurally unequal agents mobilize power resources to reshape the bases of political and policy decision-making.

PDG needs to be connected to transformative agendas that seek to reconfigure the operation of politics, administration, and economics. This agenda requires an understanding of the preconditions for establishing equal citizen engagement in deliberative and participatory processes, including how public decision-making can help tame the problems associated with the market economy, elevating the social well-being of those being adversely impacted by rising inequality.

This is why Bua and Bussu’s conceptual distinction between democracy-driven governance (DDG) and governance-driven democracy (GDD) is so important. They seek to uncover how democratic innovation and participatory governance can avoid accommodating (neo)liberal political economy. DDG is concerned with embedded forms of regulatory democratic decision-making that can lead to social transformation. The ontological starting point of what innovations in participatory governance strive to achieve differs between GDD and DDG.

I argue that while both GDD and DDG bear the stamp of democratizing democracy – because they involve the implementation of participatory and deliberative decision-making innovations – they differ in their potential to reinforce or alleviate inequality in capitalist societies based on the extent to which they are integrated in or seek to be distanced from the capital-driven logic of capitalist democracy.

I build upon the distinction between GDD and DDG by situating them within two political-economic heuristic devices: the double movement and welfare states and systems of stratification and decommodification.

The social history of market economies across industrialized countries indicates that governments consciously intervene in support of capitalism. Karl Polanyi (1944) calls this the double-movement. It entails the spread of the market economy alongside the implementation of policies and powerful institutions to support private accumulation, as well as limit severe results arising from the commodification of land, labour, and money. The contradictory nature of the double movement means that the state and the market economy influence how social welfare is administered in society.

Polanyi helps us appreciate the need for participatory democratic control – or re-embedding – of commodified goods to ensure that society is not run as an adjunct to the market. However, the slow development of democracy in market societies has meant that there has been initially (or rather only) limited mass participation in the governance of social well-being.

Gøsta Esping-Andersen (1990) expanded the work of Polyani, showing how modern welfare state regimes condition the extent of the commodification and decommodification of the public. For Esping-Andersen, while the welfare state involves an ideal picture of state responsibility for securing a basic modicum of welfare for its citizens, he noted that welfare states are systems of stratification. Welfare states involve either targeted or universal programmes, and the conditions or restrictions for eligibility, the quality of benefits and services, as well as the extent to which rights are a part of citizenship, differ across countries.

A key point is that the more ‘market-independence’ for an average worker – i.e. the right to an adequate standard of living regardless of previous employment, performance, needs-test, or financial contribution – the greater their level of decommodification. While the politics of commodifying workers has led to collective action to produce a tolerable level of welfare and security, decommodification cannot completely eradicate labour as a commodity so long as capitalism constrains collective social well-being.

Through two local case studies in Toronto, Canada, my chapter shows how GDD and DDG arise and utilize democratic innovations, which are differentially linked to a double movement, and involve forms of stratification and (de)commodification. In terms of the former, at a political and bureaucratic level, policy objectives and implementation are contradictory; the dis-embedding of market imperatives leads to strategies to offset severe inequalities by devising controlled forms of resident involvement. Governance-driven democracy in Toronto involves a double movement of the deployment and then mitigation of governance policies that have contributed to the perpetuation of inequality. In terms of the latter, spatial forms of resident mobilization and engagement coevolve to counteract problematic social, economic, and political phenomena, and are differentiated in how they approach and (can) devise strategies to address systemic problems. Thus, participatory, and deliberative decommodification is not a complete emancipation from capitalism, but the elevation of social well-being vis-a-vis public decision-making.

I see a participatory and deliberative consideration of politics, economics, and democracy as something that seeks to establish new nexuses of decommodification via the public’s involvement in the distribution of resources that fulfil collectively determined social well-being indicators. If we consider participatory and deliberative processes as (de)commodifiers, then we are left with how inequality is or is not being addressed to the extent that it could, or in comparison to other spaces, and regimes.

Nick Vlahos is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. He is author of The Political Economy of Devolution from the Postwar Era to Brexit (2020). Nick’s research interests include the interconnection between political economy, decentralization and deliberative democratization. Previously, Nick worked in the public sector at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and the Civic Innovation Office in Toronto.

This post was originally published on the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group’s blog Agora.