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Society, Politics & Law

Democratizing Inequalities

Updated Thursday, 24th April 2014

Participation has become a necessary basis for institutional authority in an era of declining social mobility and government retrenchment.

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Participation is a form of political wizardry. Any number of contemporary problems - from inequality, to hierarchy, to bureaucratic arrogance, and sclerotic institutions - are, it is often asserted, solvable using a bit of participation. Participation can create more sophisticated and other-directed citizens, it can facilitate the formation of identities, it can underpin political mobilisation, and it can prefigure better societies. In contrast, formal institutions are undemocratic and alienating. Expanding participation will make society less polarised, more democratic, and more equitable. Politically, we know we need more of this good mojo, so movements, philanthropies, and politicians all look to give greater scope to citizen voices.

It is important to remember that the current optimism about participation is a product of the 1960s. After World War II it was widely assumed that technocratic governance was a far more secure basis for democracy than the participation of emotional and easily-manipulated citizens. However, by the 1960s two things had become clear. First, technocratic governance could be as dysfunctional and inhumane as the ideological mass movements of the 1920s and 30s. Second, firms, unions, political parties, and government agencies were all extremely vulnerable to the criticism that they were unresponsive and undemocratic hierarchies that did not act in the interests of the public. In the wake of the civil rights, anti-nuclear, anti-war, and women’s movements it was easier for people to appreciate the democratising potential of citizens working together. Participation was extremely useful as a practice and a demand.

My collaborators and I working on the Democratizing Inequalities Project attempt to break with the prevalent faith in the virtues of participation.[i]  This is not because we don’t recognise its potentially democratising effects; it is because we see that participation is being put to a variety of other uses as well. Our break takes two forms. First, we shift the question. Is it actually true that the sixties movements failed in their efforts to democratise society and bring greater social justice? In the most obvious terms, yes; however, in seeing participation as the key to democratisation these movements were far more successful than they are usually given credit for.

Participatory institutions and practices are not in decline, especially in the United States. In fact, they have metastasised across the institutional landscape. By 1980 management schools regularly emphasised the importance of meaning, dialogue, and mutual accountability in the workplace. Japanese and German auto manufacturers transformed the culture of American manufacturing to make it more consultative, collaborative, and less hierarchical. Government agencies were legally constrained from passing laws without a period of open public consultation. Governance was devolved to communities through a growing reliance on community-based organisations to formulate land-use plans and development agendas. Corporations like Wal-Mart mobilise their own supporters in opposition to unionisation efforts and community attempts to block the opening of new stores. Pharmaceutical companies have made their research accountable to patient advocacy groups. New industries have emerged that provide turnkey “participation services” to the military, philanthropies, corporations, and government agencies.

This raises the second point. We are not so much concerned with participatory practices or deliberative outcomes. We are interested in participatory contexts and trajectories. We ask: who is interested in participation? Who funds it? What do they get out of it? Participation is still an important practice for prefigurative and democratising social movements and activists. What is new is that it is also a practice utilised by corporate, philanthropic, and government elites. Given that, it should not be surprising that the expansion of participatory practices has corresponded with the largest expansion of socio-economic inequality in the postwar era. Participation has become a necessary basis for institutional authority in an era of declining social mobility and government retrenchment. It has become a tool for sustaining hierarchies as much as a tool for transcending them.

This account is a US-centric one, but similar dynamics have played out around the world. Take the “Porto Alegre Experiment” in Brazil. Initially undertaken in the wake of social movement mobilisations and the reemergence of the Workers’ Party, the Porto Alegre Experiment opened the allocation of municipal resources to participatory decision-making. As much as it has been an example for social movements around the world, it has also been celebrated as a success story by the World Bank, which now encourages similar experiments elsewhere.[ii] Participatory budgeting certainly democratises government in Porto Alegre, but what does it do for the World Bank? In a technocratic mode, does the World Bank simply see participatory budgeting as a governing success story?

My own view is that the simultaneous rise in inequality and participatory practices is not coincidental. Indeed, in a context of declining mobility and declining wages, economic citizenship can no longer provide a basis for elite authority as it did in the welfare state era. At the same time, the post-sixties experience of participation has taught elites that there is no reason to fear participation. Interests and identities are surprisingly flexible. There is nothing to say that participation necessarily produces an adversarial relationship between citizens and elites, especially not after decades of experimentation with participatory practices in workplaces, government agencies, and NGOs.

How should we think about and conceptualise this? We should understand participation as a practice with highly flexible meanings and effects. These depend in part on the discrete practices in play, but even more on the institutional and political context in which they are undertaken. Today, elites, firms, and bureaucracies are utilising participation to augment their own authority. They ‘extract’ resources from citizen participation, to borrow from Christopher Kelty’s discussion in an earlier post on this blog, but they don’t just extract material resources as he suggests. They extract symbolic and cultural resources as well. Today, elite authority leans upon participation to sustain itself.

Of course not all participation can be characterised this way, but that isn’t really what is significant. Once, participation and democracy were reflexively invoked to criticise bureaucratic, hierarchical, and corporate organisations. Today, that criticism is blunted by rival participatory settings, mobilised supporters, and greater institutional openness. The true victory for elites is not that they have captured all forms of participation; it is that they have relativized its critical bite. Every organisation has its own type of participation that it can use as a shield against critics.

Elites have learned to stop worrying and love citizen participation, while advocates of greater democracy and inclusion are now required to mobilise countless adjectives to distinguish their practices from the forms of inclusion that are already being institutionalised. To understand participation today requires a confrontation with this fact.

This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between Participation Now and


[i] Caroline Lee, Michael McQuarrie, and Edward Walker, eds. Democratizing Inequalities: The Promise and Pitfalls of the New Public Participation (New York University Press, forthcoming 2015). In addition to the editors, the contributors include: Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Emily Cummins, Nina Eliasoph, Ernesto Ganuza, Matthew Judge, Daniel Kreiss, Isaac Martin, Kelly McNulty, David Meyer, Aaron Panofsky, Francesca Polletta, Amanda Pullam, Sarah Shaffer, David Schleifer, Steve Vallas.

[ii] Gianpaolo Baiocchi has a nuanced understanding of all of these developments. His book Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participatory Democracy in Porto Alegre (Stanford University Press, 2005) is a sociological account of participatory budgeting. In other work since the book’s publication, he has continued to follow developments there.





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