The Global Movement for Participatory Democracy

Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas

Directed by Silvia Leindecker and Michael Fox

Film Review

Beyond Elections is about the global participatory democracy (aka direct or deliberative democracy) movement – the grassroots effort to replace so-called representative democracy (aka polyarchy*) with a process in which citizens participate directly in policy decisions that affect their lives. Historically participatory democracy began in ancient Athens, where people governed directly through large public assemblies (unfortunately assemblies were limited to free born men, who comprised only one-fifth of the population).

According to the filmmakers, participatory democracy died out until 1989, when the Brazilian Workers Party resurrected it in Porto Allegre Brazil by creating participatory budget assemblies. In my view, this isn’t strictly correct, as the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who the Marxists expelled from the First International** , advocated for a system of participatory democracy called “collective anarchism.” Workers used participatory democracy to run the 1871 Paris Commune, as did numerous Spanish cities during the Spanish Civil War.

The Spread of Participatory Democracy

The documentary explores how this new style of local government spread throughout Brazil and to other Latin American countries, as well as to Europe, Africa and even parts of Canada (Guelph Ontario and parts of Montreal). A few US activists are campaigning for more American communities to adopt participatory democracy (several are described in the 2012 book Slow Democracy), but most Americans have never heard of it. The only aspect of participatory democracy widely adopted in the US are workers cooperatives.

Beyond Elections presents numerous examples of participatory democracies in the various Latin American countries that have implemented it. Under representative democracy, local councils are nearly always controlled by local business interests, and elected officials typically enact budgets that benefit these interests. When ordinary people control the budgeting processes through popular assemblies, they spend the money on programs benefiting the entire community, eg on clean safe housing, health centers and basic sanitation.

The Venezuelan Example

Following Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998, the Venezuelan government called a constitutional assembly to write a new constitution. The latter enabled Venezuelans to directly govern their communities through communal councils, as well as water committees, workers committees (to set up and run workers cooperatives), health committees and land committees (to implement land reform and set up farmers cooperatives).

The projects carried out by the communal councils and various committee were funded by grants from the central government. Despite endemic corruption in the Venezuelan bureaucracy, these new grassroots-run structures succeeded in bringing health care, decent housing and basic sanitation to Venezuelan slums for the very first time.

The film also examines the adoption of participatory democracy in Bolivia, Ecuador and parts of Mexico controlled by the Zapatistas.

The film is in 16 parts of roughly 5 minutes. Each successive segment starts automatically as the preceding segment finishes.

*In a polyarchy, power is closely guarded by a wealthy elite and the population remains passive except for periodic “free elections” in which they vote for the elites of their choice. When a tiny minority controls nearly all the wealth, “free elections” are only possible if the majority is systematically controlled with psychological propaganda. See Emancipate Yourself from Mental Slavery
**The First International Working Man’s Association was an international organization which aimed at uniting a variety of different left-wing socialist, communist[1] and anarchist political groups and trade union organizations that were based on the working class and class struggle.

Deliberative Democracy

slow democracy

Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home

by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout

Book Review

Slow Democracy is about a process known as “deliberative democracy.” This is a type of direct democracy in which community members play a genuine role in local governance decisions.

The book is mainly about the growing number of communities (in New York, Chicago, Washington State, Oregon, Maine, Gloucester Massachusetts, Boulder Colorado, Austin Texas, Canada, India, Eastern Europe, Australia) that have incorporated deliberative community meetings into decisions involving planning, governance, and budgeting. In the US, the 2008 global meltdown has led to ongoing state and municipal budget deficits. Cutting services is always unpopular. Thus there is strong motivation for local officials to involve the community in tough budgeting decisions.

Clark and Teachout see three alarming trends occurring in industrial society. Both public resources and governance decisions are moving towards increasing centralization and privatization. Increasingly private corporations usurp resources that rightfully belong to the public, while simultaneously making governance decisions that used to be made by elected officials. Meanwhile the public response to the corporate takeover of society has been apathy and disengagement from public life.

The authors see the deliberative democracy movement as the ideal prescription to counteract these destructive trends. The process goes by different names in different areas – study circles, charettes, meetings in a box, Who Decides, Portsmouth Listens, Living Room Conversations. Yet all seem to operate by the same underlying principle: a commitment to identify potential solutions to community problems through a public process based on good information and respectful relationships.

The New England Town Hall Meeting

Clark and Teachout begin their book with a description of the New England town hall meeting, in which residents themselves serve as the legislative branch of government. Hundreds of towns in six New England states still govern themselves via town meetings, as they have done since pre-revolutionary times. This type of direct democracy was hard to transplant to the sparsely populated settlements of the Wild West, though it was revived briefly in the Populist and Progressive movements of the late 19th century. Outside of New England it virtually vanished with the massive expansion of federal government that occurred with the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1990, hundreds of thousands of federal, state, and municipal workers gradually took over decisions that were previously made in public meetings.

Slow Democracy’s Track Record

The most dramatic success Clark and Teachout describe is when the residents of Gloucester Massachusetts ousted Suez, the French multinational that ran their water supply, and galvanized the community to start their own water company. Through a similar process, the residents of Boulder Colorado replaced coal-based Xcel Energy with their own renewables-based electric company. Slow Democracy also describes the multiple successes of the local sovereignty movement, in which the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has helped communities in the Northeast and on the West Coast pass ordinances banning hog farms, toxic sludge, fracking, GE crops, and aquifer depletion for bottled water plants.

Cultural Cognition

For me the most valuable chapter was about the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project  (See earlier post Are Right-Left Labels Obsolete?) and other tools to enhance effective deliberation among groups with opposing political views. The authors begin by dispelling the myth that the US is hopelessly split into left-right ideologues. In 2007 the Cultural Cognition Project interviewed a random sample of 5,000 Americans. As predicted, the interviewees didn’t self-select into neat left-right or liberal-conservative camps. Instead their core beliefs could be plotted on a two dimensional grid depending on their views about hierarchical authority vs egalitarianism and individualism vs collective responsibility. The study results are available at Cultural Cognition Project.

It turns out that living in the same community causes residents to share many of the same concerns, despite profound differences in their worldview. Clark and Teachout give examples of successful community conversations between groups with opposing views on climate change, the Israel-Palestine conflict and abortion. All were successful in finding some areas of agreement, while simultaneously discovering the media was playing a major role in fanning the clash between them.

The book includes valuable appendices on ground rules for local officials and ordinary citizens seeking to set up effective “study circles,” as well as organizations willing to help facilitate the process and publications offering additional tools.

Originally published in Dissident Voice