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Participatory Budgeting and the Solidarity Economy

Participatory Budgeting and the Solidarity Economy

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Published by: morphospace on Jun 12, 2009
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03/05/2011

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Participatory Budgeting: from Porto Alegre, Brazil to the USBy Mike Menser and Juscha Robinson
 Throughout the US left but in particular those groupsparticipating at the first US Social Forum and the global justicemovement more generally, “participatory democracy” is a phrase oneencounters in all kinds of different movements and organizations fromanti-war meetings and environmental justice organizations to directaction affinity groups to community-sponsored agriculture outfits,international solidarity organizations and prison abolitionists. And it iscertainly a central feature of the solidarity economy. In this essay wewill talk a little about what “participatory democracy”
1
(PD) has cometo mean for such movements, but for the most part our remarks willfocus on a particular mode of PD called “participatory budgeting”--aninnovation made famous in Brazil but recently spread across the globeto more than 1000 cities.
2
The last section of the essay takes stock of conversations at and after the US Social Forum—where a nationalparticipatory budgeting initiative was launched--and forwards a fewhumble observations and suggestions about concrete plans of actionfor those interested is democratizing that most fundamental of allgovernmental functions: the budget.
Participatory democracy 
is that view of politics which calls for thecreation and proliferation of practices and institutions that enableindividuals and groups to better determine the conditions in which theyact and relate to others. The term gained currency in 1962 afterStudents for a Democratic Society issued their groundbreaking PortHuron statement which, among other things, laid out a conception of democracy that called for citizens to seize their collective political fatesby reclaiming the public sphere as self-determining agents rather thanlining to up to listen to those campaigning to take the reins of themilitary-industrial corporate state. SDS’s view was largely influencedby eminent social critic C. Wright Mills, but another key (now forgotten)figure was Arnold Kauffman a professor at the University of Michiganwho first coined the phrase in an essay called “"Participatory
1
For the purposes of this essay we shall use the term “participatory democracy” rather than“direct democracy” because the first category is more broad thus, DD is a kind of PD but thereare others. It is worth noting that some believe that PD is too close to the liberal democratic stateand direct democracy (also called self—governance, self-determination, or autogestion” is thereal future of democracy. While one of us is sympathetic to this view, we do not share it. For more on this issue see Menser, “Disarticulate the State (forthcoming, Routledge 2008)
2
According to PB researcher Josh Lerner, the most robust example of PB is no longer PortoAlegre but Seville Spain. Other cities that are undertaking PB projects include dozens in theDominican Republic, Bobigny, France, the London Burrow of Harrow, Puntagorda, CanaryIslands, and Guelph, Canada. PB has also occurred within different municipal departments suchas public housing in Toronto and in schools in Brazil. A lengthy if incomplete list atwww.participatorybudgeting.org (Hereafter cited as “PB website.)
 
Democracy and Human Nature" (Miller 160).
3
One of Kaufman’sstudents was the person who actually drafted the Port HuronStatement, Tom Hayden. For SDS and contemporary proponents of participatory democracy (PD),
any 
sphere of human activity could andshould be made more “participatory”--not just the formally political(e.g. legislatures, courts, bureaucratic departments) but the social andeconomic realms as well (families, neighborhoods, communities,schools, associations, firms). This unbounding of democratic desire isevident in the vast range of where PD has taken root: from foodcooperatives and collective households to free schools andneighborhood associations.
 i
 Although participatory democracy seems to share many of thevalues of mainstream liberal/Enlightenment tradition (freedom,equality, solidarity, democracy),
actual
liberal democratic states oftenimpede or even actively undermine PD efforts. In recent years this hasbeen especially evident in the growth of a bureaucratized (if private)“expert class” which considers the “average citizen” too stupid tomake important policy decisions much less understand thecomplexities of contemporary life because of its immense scale andtechnological sophistication.
4
Additional threats to PD are well-known:the dominance of big money donors and corporate media in electionsand the failure of campaign finance reform to adequately addresseither problem. This inability (or unwillingness?) of the state to fostermore democratic and popular participation (all we get are scripted“town hall” meetings!) raises the more difficult question as to nature of the state and its role in building a more progressive political future.Perhaps states are
essentially 
antidemocratic. This is the position of anarchists and (many) indigenous peoples. The argument here is thatbecause the state claims a monopoly on both law-making and thedeployment of coercive force (i.e. only the state can pass laws and
legitimately 
use violence), it is at its core against all about the wieldingof incredible power of an elite against the populace at large (alsoknown as the “citizenry” but more accurately labeled the “subjects” of the state.). Hence the importance of recalling that the US was founded
3
We note the origin of the term not to proclaim Kaufman or SDS for that matter, to be the soleorigin of the participatory democracy; PD has been practiced in many different cultural contextsfor millennia, but to note the intersection of theoretical innovations alongside emerging socialmovements and the productive interplay between the two. This cross-fertilization between thetheoretical and the action-oriented is again at play in the current moment in what often gets calledthe global justice movement. (See D.L. Sheth’s , The reinvention of Participatory Democracy”
4
 
Of course, this same elitist argument could be made against the leadershipof the current administration but we’ll pass on that contradiction for themoment. What is worth emphasizing, however, is that the existence andspread of PD and in particular participatory budgeting demonstrates thefalsity of the all too familiar argument that “average citizens” are unable tomake good decisions; (more below.)
 
as a
Republic
and specifically not as a democracy; this view is laid outin the Federalist papers but goes back to Plato. Republics are foundedupon the notion that those who rule and those who are ruled belong totwo different spheres--the function of the police is to preserve thebarrier between the two (maintain law and order, “serve and protect”). This distance is founded in the constitution and through theunderstanding of governance as
representation
(someone else standsin for you) rather than participation (those who are effected decide).At their best, such Republics may satisfy the
interests
of certaingroups--usually elites of whatever sort but when crises or unrestthreatens “new deals” are sometimes struck (e.g. the welfare state, thecivil rights act
5
). But for the most part, when the state benefits(represents or “stands in for”) some group, it sticks it to somebody else(minorities, slaves, women, the colonies, indigenous peoples…) Othersargue that this need not be the case. Rather it is neoliberalism orcapitalism that has rendered the state so violently inegalitarian. But,with the right political party and/or widespread social upheaval statescan be made truly democratic. This is of course the view of socialismbut also liberalism both of which are driven by a view that the state isthe best way to create a just political community even if these twotraditions differ about methods and the extent of change (revolution,elections) and who should lead it (vanguard party, persons whose lastname is Clinton…)In the last two decades or so, whatever one’s view, it seemsclear that even liberal democratic states have become less and lessdemocratic both in terms of the political process and the results of these political processes; which is to say that more and more peoplehave fewer opportunities to participate and inequalities of all sortshave intensified. Yet, even though cynicism and apathy areconspicuous features of our socio-political landscape, over the sametime frame there have been more and more efforts to make variousinstitutions more participatory. As one might suppose (going back toSDS), the most robust examples of PD have occurred outside of thestate in civil society (community gardens, food not bombs, indymediaoutlets, see above). However, if one expands the scope of inquiry andlets it drift a bit to the south, one of the best known PD experiments
inthe world 
has shown that it is possible to democratize that mostcentral of all governmental functions: the budget.
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A wonderful instance of this understanding was in full display in January of 2008 when HilaryClinton stated that "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passedthe Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that PresidentKennedy was hopeful to do, [that] the president before [him] had not even tried," she said. “Ittook a president to get it done." Former community organizer and current presidential candidateBarack Obama took offense, as did many others and Clinton the two have agreed to drop theissue.

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