Social Ecology London

Democratizing the Municipality,The Promise of Participatory Budgeting. By Sveinung Legard
June 25, 2007, 5:09 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews

This article was first published in ‘Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society’

Any new political movement striving to achieve another type of society, has to enter into a battle for the “hearts and minds” of the public. We have to convince people that our demands are just, and that a free, ecological and cooperative society – based on direct and participatory democracy – is both desirable and necessary. That, however, is not enough. We must also show how our ideas can be applied in practice. People have to see that the new social arrangement we are advocating can actually work under real-life circumstances. This might seem like a banal statement, but after all we are advancing a new radical project that will challenge people to revolutionize their way of thinking. We would therefore be well advised not to expect a majority, or even a sizable minority, to join us unless we have examples to highlight and draw inspiration from. Nor is it only enough talk about future social changes, we have to work for concrete changes in the here and now that might move us in the direction of the society we desire implying, among other things, building up an alternative power structure that eventually will have to confront and try to replace the present oligarchic one.
In short, any new political movement striving to achieve another type of society must concentrate its efforts in three different areas. It has to convince people of both the desirability and practicality of its ideals, it has to fight for concrete social changes in today’s society, and it has to strive to establish a skeleton of potentially liberatory institutions. In arguing for the desirability and necessity of social change, contemporary social movements might seem strong. They provide a critique of capitalist society, and advocate values and visions in magazines, movies and on the web challenging those of the elites. However, they have a great weakness. Even though a wide specter of social movements organize under the slogan “Another world is possible!,” few have concrete answers as to how it is actually possible to organize society in another way. The confusion over how another society can be attained – the long-term political strategies – is immense. Present day radicals seldom have ideas on how they can connect their ideals and vision with their everyday political practice. Instead of being proactive they mostly end up being reactive, often defending social arrangements that they in reality detest.(1) Still others are stuck in a form of puritan insurrectionism, where almost any engagement with present social realities is deemed as “conformism” or “class-betrayal.”
To fill this void an increasing number of people have begun to look to Brazil for examples. Since the late 1980s a number of Brazilian towns and cities have developed a system of municipal government based on direct participation of citizens in the budgetary process. This is known as participatory budgeting (or orçamento participativo in Portuguese). It has caused a major change in traditional municipal structures, not only by opening the city finances to public deliberation, but also by spurring changes in other areas like city-planning, schooling, gender-relations and the local economy. Because of the high level of attendance in slums and working-class neighborhoods, and the redistributive effect of the process itself, participatory budgeting has often been hailed by prominent writers on the so-called participatory Left. “A remarkable city” and the “site of a new kind of developing democracy,” writes Ignacio Ramonet, editor-in-chief of the French Le Monde Diplomatique, about Porto Alegre – the city that used to be the center of participatory budgeting in Brazil.(2) Writer and editor of Red Pepper magazine in Britain, Hilary Wainwright, has praised participatory budgeting for its “radical distribution of wealth” through “people power.”(3)
The aim of this article is not to discuss whether Porto Alegre is a “remarkable city,” nor to judge the specific achievements of participatory budgeting. Neither is it my objective to criticize confused reformists who do not have coherent ideas about how to change society, nor to pick on their insurrectionist counter-parts.Rather, what I would like to do is assess participatory budgeting from a Communalist perspective, to see what potentialities or limits it has as a democratized municipality and challenge the assumptions about participatory democracy on the “participatory Left.”(4) Communalism already has its views on how to move from “here” to “there,” and does in fact believe that it is possible to achieve concrete and liberatory changes in present society, and I will try to show how Communalism provides better answers than do other radicals writing about participatory budgeting, on the central questions for any new political movement: How to convince people of the practicality of our ideals, how to fight for concrete social changes today, and how to set up a skeleton of democratic institutions for tomorrow.

The Municipality Does what the People Decide
Recife is a city on the coast line of North-Eastern Brazil. It is known to international tourists for of its long, white beaches and its proximity to the picturesque city of Olinda, one of the first colonial settlements in Brazil. To Brazilians it is known as the country’s “Africa,” home to vast slums where most of the city’s fifty percent poor live in makeshift housing under appalling conditions. Few global cities, however, can boast of having the same amount of its inhabitants participating in municipal decision-making processes. Out of the 1.6 million people living in Recife, more than 70 000 annually attend the participatory budget.(5) This system is coordinated by a forty-people strong municipal office, that in 2006 organized nearly sixty plenary and thematic assemblies and close to 800 smaller forums and meetings where the citizenry stepped up to make the city-budget.
Participatory budgeting in Recife basically works in the following manner: From April until June the municipality organizes plenary assemblies in the city-districts. These are open for all citizens above 16 years of age, and the assemblies might be attended by a few hundred locals to more than a thousand, depending on the needs of the neighborhoods and how well organized its dwellers are. The participants vote on which measures they think are most important for their neighborhood, and can prioritize between sectors like health, culture, renovation, education, employment, sports and more. In addition, to avoid local parochialism, the municipality facilitates theme-based assemblies across district-lines that works in a likewise manner.
Delegates are then elected by associations in the neighborhoods, and given a clear mandate to make a budget based on the priorities of the people. If they do not follow the priorities made at the popular assemblies, they might be recalled and replaced by others. From July until December close to 2500 delegates meet to negotiate a result with the municipal administration. A council of delegates is responsible for collecting all proposals and priorities, and makes a budget document. This document is in turn handed over to the city-council of elected representatives which make the final decision in December. In the same month, the result of the process is debated in the delegate-forums and in the neighborhood-assemblies, and in January the budget-cycle starts again by citizens and coordinators preparing for the priorities of the following year.
Although many of the cities practicing participatory budgeting often do so in their own fashion, the results have often been strikingly similar. A wide range of studies has shown that more public revenue has been redistributed from the affluent sectors of the population to the poorer neighborhoods, after the introduction of participatory budgeting. Porto Alegre, a city in the far south of Brazil, where participatory budgeting first was initiated by the Brazilian Workers Party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in 1988, and where the model was practiced for sixteen straight years, was long used as a showcase for the PT. Its achievements were stunning in comparison to other more “normal” corruption-ridden Brazilian municipalities. Marion Gret and Yves Sintomer sum up the effects on the areas that were targeted by participatory budgeting in the city:
The first is that of basic infrastructural work in working-class neighborhoods. […] Considerable emphasis was put on asphalting roads – a key factor for undertaking further improvements in public transport, household garbage collection, and increased mobility for residents […]. Some 99 per cent of the population now have running water in their homes. The proportion of residents on the main sewage system has doubled […], and household garbage collection in working-class neighborhoods has increased on a similar scale. […] The second realm is that of education. The number of municipal daycare centres tripled in ten years, and some hundred city-approved community daycare centres were created. The number of children attending municipal schools almost tripled, and adult education was encouraged. […] The same goes for the health sector, which received sustained investment, particular focus being put on healthcare for children and infants.(6)

This is a result of two intertwined forces. First, the budgetary process itself has led to a pressure to raise tax-levels, harness tax-collection and widen the tax-base (to include industrial and commercial activities, and property). Gret and Sintomer describe the outcome of this in Porto Alegre as “dramatic” because it quickly opened up “new scope for investment, which made it possible to boost the administrative machinery and popular participation.”(7)
Secondly, a policy called “inversion of priorities,” an expression used by PT-led administrations to describe redistribution of resources, has resulted in redistribution of public funds. The “inversion of priorities” consists of a set of social and demographic criteria, by which funds are allocated to neighborhoods according to their size and shortcomings. This means that neighborhoods that have the fewest schools, most open sewers and least access to affordable healthcare – and in addition have more inhabitants – will receive more money through projects than others. The number of citizens in a certain area attending their budget assembly also affects how many delegates the neighborhood can elect, and thus the likelihood of funds being allocated to the neighborhood. This has proved a significant incentive for the poorer segments of the population to participate. As Rebecca Abers writes, a survey in Porto Alegre in 1995 “showed that, contrary to expectations, middle-class and wealthy residents did not dominate the budget assemblies. [Particularly] at the regional level, […] the vast majority of participants were poor and less-educated.”(8)
There is evidence that participatory budgeting has strengthened the civic culture in the cities where it has been introduced, and even cultivated new involvement in places where it hardly could have been said to exist before. Observers point to a new mentality developing where people increasingly see themselves as active citizens with a certain set of social rights, and not as passive recipients of favors from paternalistic politicians. The growth-rate of community associations and new institutions like popular councils and cooperatives in cities applying participatory budgeting, is testament to this. In a vivid and extraordinarily honest study of Porto Alegre, Gianpaolo Baiocchi shows how such civic processes have been taking place as new arenas have been opened for public congregation:
Many, having originally come to the [participatory budget] to discuss a specific problem, have stayed on to take part in organizations like the [popular council] if not in local neighborhood associations, which have come to thrive. In fact, the [participatory budget] has become a central feature of community life in the city´s sixteen districts, and many voluntary organizations like the [popular council] receive a powerful impetus from it.(9)
Hence, communal demands for increased public participation in local politics seem to follow in the wake of the participatory budget. In Belém, the biggest city in the Amazon jungle, the PT administration has established an annual city-congress, where the most pressing issues in the city are debated and resolved. The congress itself is based on a system of deliberation at various geographical levels, where a wide range of public associations are encouraged to send their delegates. The congress is viewed as complementary to the budgetary process, and representatives from the PT administration in the city claim that as many as thirty percent of the total population participate in both of the processes.(10)
The administration of Recife conducts its affairs under the slogan “The Municipality Does. The People Decide.” Herein lies the promise of participatory budgeting. In participatory budgeting, the role of the municipal administration is not to enforce the decisions of the elected politicians onto the city-inhabitants, but rather to facilitate the participation of the inhabitants, and seeing to the realization of the budget in partnership with their delegates. This participatory system has in turn fostered politicized communities and progressive demands for increased distribution and participation in other decision-making processes. However, although the slogan of the municipality of Recife, as we shall soon see, should be regarded more as a vision than a concrete reality, it still points towards a new form of participatory democratic municipal government that fundamentally breaks with our present forms of authoritarian government.

The Bureaucratic Face of Participatory Budgeting
It is worthwhile stressing the point that participatory budgeting is only pointing to a different form of municipal government. Contrary to the often lofty descriptions of the system as a bold experiment in direct democracy, it should rather be regarded as a type of municipal co-governance. As the Brazilian sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes, participatory budgeting is “a model for sharing political power by means of a network of democratic institutions geared to reaching decisions by deliberation, consensus, and compromise.”(11)
To put it another way, participatory budgeting has two conflicting faces: One that is directly democratic – based upon popular assemblies and mandated delegates – and one that is authoritarian – based upon political representation and bureaucratic control. This tension has been present in the project from its very outset, in a strange mix of belief in popular power as a way to achieve a socialist society, and as an instrument for “good governance” and enforcing the power of the PT in municipal government. Soon after the introduction of participatory budgeting to Porto Alegre in 1988, the PT-led administration became fully engrossed in organizing the executive structures of the city as it had been left in a confused state by former administrations. During the first term in office, this led to a controversy initiated by “activists who saw no point in the city-council team devoting its efforts to a reorganization of public policies”:
[They were] arguing that a people’s government was not about public works but rather about the radicalization of participation and mobilization of the citizenry, with the objective of ‘outflanking the bureaucratic and bourgeois state’ […]. The idea that it was [at] once necessary and possible to transform public management took hold only progressively, first within the city-council team, and then in the rest of the party.(12)

Now, the important issue here is not whether is was necessary or not to create order out of the disorder of former administrations, but rather that participatory budgeting was, quite early, shaped for achieving other ends than increasing popular self-management in the neighborhoods. In fact, the model was used by the PT administration in Porto Alegre to increase its own governability (i.e. its ability to make the rest of the municipal organs comply to its whishes). As shown in the historical presentation by Rebecca Abers, it did so by channeling government actions through its central planning agency and the municipal budget council: “Advertising the participatory process as one of the ‘hallmarks of the administration’ helped the mayor’s office to gain more control of decisions throughout the administration because it wielded a ‘moral authority’ when it demanded that the city agencies defer to [the central planning office].”(13)
It is very important, therefore, to keep in mind that participatory budgeting was introduced on the one hand to combat corruption, clientalism and to achieve a fairer distribution of municipal revenues, all main objectives of the PT, and on the other to give ordinary citizens increased control over local government. The system itself has been legitimized and validated because of its ability to achieve these ends. An instrumental view of participatory government has thus become widespread among militants of the PT, and also among those who relentlessly work to mobilize the citizens in their cities. When I visited the region, some of the central organizers of the participatory budget in Recife were stunned when they learned that somebody was trying to implement something similar to participatory budgeting in a country like Norway. Why would anyone need that model in a country where there is basically no official corruption, and where every person has access to basic social services? That it should be a democratic right in itself to have an equal share of power in political affairs, regardless of what this power is used for, is not a view that seemed widespread among central organizers of participatory budgeting in Recife.
Anyone following the budgetary process in a city like Recife would attest to the tight control of the PT administration over both public assemblies and the delegate forums. The neighborhood assemblies are professionally directed by the central participatory budget-office, and at the start of the meetings a 15-minute political commercial is shown on a big screen – hailing the achievements of the current PT administration and painting a heroic picture of the mayor. There is virtually no space for public debate, and invited outsiders – like prominent international guests – are normally put on a panel in front of the participating citizens.
The delegates of the participants at the neighborhood assemblies are closely followed by the administration, and they have few opportunities to advance new projects that have not been prefabricated by the administration. The organizers in the office of the participatory budget themselves often assert their educational role in the process – to enlighten the delegates and assembly participants of their own best interests. Although they may in many situations be right, the problem is the attitude. Indeed, it is very hard to describe participatory budgeting as being in any way a citizens-controlled system. PT administrations all over the country have been very hesitant, if not outright hostile, to inscribing participatory budgeting in municipality constitutions. The claim is that such formalized inscription would make the participatory institutions less flexible, and could be used by the right-wing opposition to hinder further radicalization of the process. However, the hesitancy may be due to the fear of the PT loosing its dominance and position in the budgeting system?
Regardless of how one judges these forms of informal control by the PT, it is still impossible to describe participatory budgeting as a form of direct democracy. Formally, it is the elected politicians in the municipal council, Câmara dos Vereadores, who can ultimately accept or refuse the budget that has been made in the participatory forums. This veto has seldom been used though. One should not underestimate the moral power of the participatory budget. It has proved to be extremely difficult for representatives who are dependent on re-election to go against “the budget of the people,” and to this date that has not happened in Recife.
Still, we have to maintain that the governmental authority of the participatory budget does not lie in the hands of the organized people – neither in their public assemblies, nor with their delegates. After all, many of the PT-executives in Porto Alegre, who introduced participatory budgeting, never seemed to like the idea of direct democracy in the first place. As ex-mayor Olivio Dutra has explained: “We are not selling the illusion of the direct democracy in the Greek Plaza.”(14) Although the vision of an anti-statist Socialism based on a variety of workers assemblies and councils had strong roots in the PT, many leaders in the Porto Alegre branch of the party seem to have started to regard this idea as naïve quite early.

“Good Governance” and International Implementations
As people have been inspired by the advent of participatory budgeting in Brazil, there have been attempts to implement it in different parts of world. But in countries like Chile, Canada, USA, Germany, France, Turkey and England, it is the rule rather than the exception that it is the bureaucratic face of participatory budgeting that has been cherished. Citizen participation is not considered as a good because it fosters public empowerment, but because it strengthen ties between the electorate and the elected, tailor limited municipal resources to the needs of the population, enhances administrative transparency and create a sense of ownership among “stakeholders” in local politics – in other words, it fulfills any Liberal’s dream of “good governance.”
For this reason, Porto Alegre was selected to be one of twenty model-cities at the UN Urban Habitat conference in Istanbul in 1996, and that is also why the World Bank wants to implement participatory budgeting to Sub-Saharan African countries. As the World Bank itself says in an online course for aspiring “participatory democrats” on the international consultancy scene:
The active participation of the beneficiaries in programming public expenditure is transforming passive stakeholders into active stockholders whose voice defines the manner in which local government expenditures are made. […] A second benefit of participatory budgeting is the demand by the public for efficiency in the production of services. […] This demand for efficiency has been institutionalized in local governments as part of performance based budgeting. Municipalities which practice performance based budgeting are in effect carrying out service delivery surveys periodically to assure client satisfaction as well as technical efficiency in the provision of services.(15)

The German city of Emstetten is a case in point. Since 2001 this mid-size municipality has been employing a “participatory budget” of its very own, consulting the population instead of involving them directly in the decision-making process. On the one side, Emstetten puts great emphasis on informing its population by sending brochures to every household at the outset of the budgetary-process. Two thousand randomly selected citizens then receives a “personal” letter from the Mayor, explaining why they have been selected for the participatory budget. About 150-200 inhabitants actually show up in the discussion-forums, where they meet with representatives of the administration to dialogue on a range of subjects in the fields of expenditures, personnel costs and local taxes. There is nothing in Emstetten’s model saying that the citizen-budget has to be translated into real-life budget priorities. Still, according to Carsten Herzberg of the March Bloch Centre in Berlin, the top-representatives of Emstetten are pleased with this system because it has, among other things, improved the “sensitization” of its administrative staff and given the city some degree of local and national “visibility.”(16)
No matter how much the PT in Brazil informally controls the budgetary process, these international participatory expeditions stand in stark contrast to the original spirit of participatory budgeting. As Rebecca Abers shows, the PT was, in its early days, ideologically bent on direct democracy. Learning from the failures of the Soviet Union and the so-called “real existing Socialism,” important tendencies within the party started to talk about a Socialist society based on assemblies and councils in the neighborhoods. Also, the experience of living under a dictatorship deeply affected the Brazilian Left: “[S]ocial movements, union groups, and left-wing militants, which had previously been very much focused on the state as the solution for society’s ills, began, during the military period, to see the state as the problem. There was widespread consensus that the PT should contribute to decreasing the centralized, bureaucratic-authoritarian power of the state and increasing the role of `autonomous´ civil society in public decision-making.”(17) Participatory budgeting was not conceived of as an end-point for a “popular administration,” much less as a means to breathing life into dying representative institutions, but as a first step in creating a new social order based on direct and participatory democracy.

The Inherent Contradictions of “Participation”
If we agree that participatory budgeting has two different faces we have not only to understand why, but also how its bureaucratic aspects can be avoided if we are to engage in similar efforts to democratize our own municipalities. Communalists share many of its goals with the so-called participatory Left, but in understanding the two faces of participatory budgeting the ideological acolytes of the “participatory Left” provide more confusion than clarity. Instead of seeing how two different forms and visions of government are in fact colliding in participatory budgeting, writers like Hilary Wainwright and America Vera-Zavala tend to see participatory and representative institutions as mutually fulfilling.
Vera-Zavala, for example, ignores the question of the tension between the direct and representative levels in participatory budgeting when she writes that “there are big differences between a participatory democracy and a representative parliamentary democracy,” but “this is not about one being better than the other. The differences are in fact so big that the two systems are not comparable.”(18) How is it possible to avoid a comparison between the “two systems” when Porto Alegre and Recife are ridden by the immanent conflicts between the systems? As we have seen, the representative institutions in Porto Alegre or Recife only give the popular assemblies very narrow powers in the decision-making process. The “people’s budget” can even be vetoed at any time by the city council. And whereas the citizens might affect a small portion of the city budget, decisions at many other levels of government affect the economic conditions of the Brazilian municipalities. Although we might look with goodwill at Vera-Zavala’s vision of participatory institutions as a counter-weight to national assemblies and state-bureaucracies, or Wainwright’s insistence on participatory democracy as a form of embedded bargaining power that would strengthen otherwise disempowered community-members – after all, they are engaged in activism to enhance the powers of ordinary people – they miss out the point that Communalists make: Representative institutions always tend to restrict the power of direct democratic institutions, with their authoritarian decision-making tools and bureaucratic structures.
Imagine yourself as a candidate of a party winning the municipal elections. Once in office, you would like to implement the program of your party and you need an administration to execute your policies. What better way to do this than through already existing bureaucratic structures? Participatory institutions, in which these policies could be reverted, sabotaged or exhausted by opposition groups, would just be annoying obstacles to you and your party. The best thing you could do, would be to either restrict the power of these institutions or try to make them work in your favor. This very same tension can be seen in participatory budgeting. The original PT-administration of Porto Alegre boldly proclaimed that their electoral campaign “should be understood as a moment in the accumulation of political, organizational and programmatic forces in the process of constructing socialism,” and that its concrete proposals “although made for administrative structures existing within the capitalist perspective, have the political purpose of denouncing them and changing them, contributing to their overthrow.”(19) But as we saw, not many years later, the PT-administration did not hesitate in using the very same administrative structures to achieve its own ends.
The very framework of participatory budgeting is based on a system of government where the power of the common citizen is very limited, and the “participatory democracy” that Vera-Zavala and Wainwright envision does not seem to go very much further. “Representative institutions,” proposes Wainwright, “set out the broad framework” and the “process of participatory democracy provides ways in which ordinary people, rather than simply officials, can play a decisive role in elaborating the detail of how these broad policy commitments are carried out.”(20) In other words, the real policies are to be formulated by people other than the participants in the process themselves.
The real question here is in what institutions power resides, and what institutions are conditioning the power of other institutions. In this question, spokespersons of the “participatory Left” tend to advocate a system of government where the power residing directly with people is not very much more than executing the orders elected politicians, and hopefully being able to correct them if needed. Compared to a Liberal like Robert Dahl, they differ only in the details. His vision of a democratic society reduces the direct influence of ordinary citizens to simple city-planning and budgeting alongside voting in the parliamentary elections. “The democratic idea is too grand to be trivialized by restricting itself to only one form of authority,” writes Dahl in After the Revolution.(21) But what he, Vera-Zavala and Wainwright have in common is a hard time in seeing how one form of authority undermines another.

The State is Different from the Municipality
The ideals of Communalism, however, go further. We want a new society where we as citizens together hold real and tangible power, and have a decisive impact on the future of its development – where political authority resides in directly democratic institutions. If we are to convince ordinary people of our ideas we have to show how they are applicable in practice, and provide strategies for how we want to achieve another society. There are people seeing the de-radicalization of the municipal administrations of PT as just another version of the same old story: That attempts at entering and reforming government – government of any kind – only leads to the co-optation of social movements and a steady reconciliation with capitalism. Even though this can be said of movements running candidates for parliamentary elections at a state level, this does not necessarily hold true for entering municipal institutions.
The “participatory Left” does not make this distinction.(22) It is quite interesting that both Wainwright and Vera-Zavala justify their views in opposition to the statist ideals of Social Democracy, and that they both seems to think that new Socialist parties based on “participatory democracy” would avoid being absorbed by the dominant social order like the old European workers parties. Wainwright describes the problem of Social Democracy in the following manner:
The presumption behind conventional social democratic thinking was that the state under the control of the party was the prime agency of social change, the engineer of social justice. Moreover, the predominant conception was of the state as an agency for change operating on society, effectively from above, like an engineer fixes a machine. The role of the labour movement, the mass supporters, was to get the social engineers into place so that they could deploy the instruments of state. Implementation of policy was seen as a technical matter, best left to the experts.(23)

Although a usefully descriptive critique, her approach is deeply problematical. She reduces the disintegration of Social Democracy to an ideological question, and argues as if social-democratic parties already had a well-developed bureaucratic ideology at hand before they gained state power. But Wainwright seems to be reading history from the end to the beginning, instead of the other way around. As has been emphasized by Robert Michels and others, social-democratic parties started out with an ideal of creating a participatory social system in which ordinary working people were the main agents. As these movements gained more state-power, ideas of social engineering increasingly gained prominence within the parties and their internal party structures became increasingly hierarchical. Once in power, Social Democrats embraced ideas that were suited for their need of managing the state and to create “socialism from above.”
This story is not unique to Social Democracy, but can also been found in the trajectories of the “alternative parties” of the 1970’s and 1980’s such as Die Grünen in Germany or Sosialistisk Venstreparti in Norway. The reason for this is not ideological, but rather institutional. First, entering the state makes it necessary to participate in an almost permanent electoral race, where a highly professional leadership is continually asked to state the view of the party on issues put forth in the press on a day-to-day basis. The need for such a flexible leadership undermines internal party democracy. Second, and most importantly, by entering the state one enters a highly bureaucratic and professionalized apparatus that – whether controlled by “socialists” or not – is founded on the basic principle of managing the population. Such a top-down apparatus can never be democratized in any meaningful sense of the word. The state is based on taking over tasks that formerly used to be taken care of in the civic sphere or by the family (and even in some instances in the market-place), however incompletely, and putting them in the hands of a professional bureaucracy. These state agencies are, in turn, supposed to be subject to the authority of a national assembly established by a popular vote – a structure that must consist of professional decision-makers, if they are to be able to manage the administrative apparatus.
Communalism draws a line between statecraft and politics, and is consequently much better equipped to understand the difference between entering the state and the municipality. Politics, writes Janet Biehl, “means the activity of citizens in a public body, empowered in shared, indeed participatory institutions,” whereas statecraft is a system of elites and masses that “presupposes the general abdication of citizen power. It reduces citizens to ‘taxpayers’ and ‘voters’ and ‘constituents,’ as if they were too juvenile or too incompetent to manage public affairs themselves. They are expected to function merely passively and let elites look out for their best interests.”(24) To get the full picture we have to add that statecraft does not exclude popular participation per se, only popular power. Inhabitants in a city might be directly involved in effecting, and even administrating, state policies on a community level. However, as the international implementations of participatory budgeting all too clearly show, “participation” might be used to increase the “governability” of elites.
For Communalism entering the municipality is fundamentally different from entering the State. In the words of Janet Biehl, ”the most important common feature [of municipalities] is that they are all potentially sites of a nascent political realm where the tradition of direct democracy […] may be reviewed and expanded.”(25) The local community has always been a locus of a public sphere, where people have met as citizens in order to deliberate on the issues that are most pressing for their societies. This holds true in most parts of the world, as well as in Scandinavia where rural “municipalities” were established under the name of the Ting in order to solve conflicts in between tribal societies, and city affairs were governed by public assemblies called Mót. Communalism asserts that it is possible to transform municipal administration under the supervision of direct democratic institutions and elected, mandated delegates, by de-bureaucratizing it and replacing it with empowering social institutions and organizations. The most promising elements of participatory budgeting do point in this direction. One of the principal arguments of any opponent of direct democracy, the “participatory Left” notwithstanding, is how decisions would be taken on a city-wide or even regional and international level. The answer to this lies partly in participatory budgeting itself, namely that a confederal system of assemblies of recallable and mandated delegates that can work pretty much as delegate forums in Porto Alegre or Recife do.
The Anarchist argument against engaging with the municipality is that this is equal to engage with the State. But Communalism is not as myopic as Anarchism and is able to discern social arrangements from one another. It rightly draws the line – unlike the anarchists – between a government and a state. As Murray Bookchin writes, every society needs a type of government, but it does not necessarily have to be a state: “While the state is the instrument by which an oppressive and exploitative class regulates and coercively controls the behavior of an exploited class by a ruling class, a government – or better still, a polity – is an ensemble of institutions designed to deal with the problems of consociational life in an orderly and hopefully fair manner. Every institutionalized association that constitutes a system for handling public affairs – with or without the presence of a state – is necessarily a government. By contrast, every state, although necessarily a form of government, is a force for class repression and control.”(26) The fear of “taking power” that lies behind so much of the reflexive reactions against participatory budgeting because it is assumed to be taking State power, normally leads to a flight away from “society” into smaller social centers, squats, eco-villages and the like. But by trying to create small communities on the fringe of today’s societies, one has no chance of being a threat to the existing power-structures and tends to leave them alone. The puritan insurrectionism that mark so many of these anarchist circles not only underestimates the need for building an alternative power-structure, but also the need to show people how alternative and democratic ways of governing society are possible.

The Expansion of Municipal Democracy
As shown earlier in this article, the paradoxes of participatory budgeting stem from its position in a conflicting sphere of different forms, of new and old. On the one hand a new set of political institutions based on direct citizen-participation, and on the other an administrative extension of the management of the people by the State. We have to enter this troublesome arena of contesting forces of politics and statecraft, but we have to do so in a conscious way. Unlike the “participatory Left” we do not believe that direct democratic and representative institutions can complement each other, as they eat heavily into the power of the other. Nor do we believe that we can use the state as an instrument to facilitate participatory democracy. We enter the municipality because we believe it is there that a democracy in the original meaning of the word – the people governing – can be established.
In cases where participatory forms of local government already exist we have to enter them, and where they still do not exist we have to enter the municipal politics in order to create them. Our goal is to continuously expand the scale and outreach of direct democracy in these participatory aspects of municipal government. If we in the first instance only manage to achieve popular assemblies with an advisory role in the budgetary process, we continue to work to give these popular assemblies decision-making powers over the budget itself. We thereby proceed by demanding that taxation, and other means of financing public spending, be put under direct citizens control, as well as extending the outreach of the assemblies to encompass other areas like planning, health, education and more.
But in seeking this we find ourselves in a minority. The forces that advocate a form of mixed democracy, like Dahl and the “participatory Left” – or even think that today’s society is democratic enough – are in a great majority. We have to be acutely aware that the social situation in which we operate is not one of our own choosing, and act accordingly. We should not eschew making alliances with other groups, like those from the “participatory Left,” who are working for a more direct form of democracy. One example of such an alliance was the campaign for participatory budgeting in Oslo, Norway where the Communalist organization Democratic Alternative was one of the principal organizers. Initiated by a citizen-alliance consisting of non-party political groups and community-organizations in 2004, the campaign advanced a citizen-petition(27) to the city council arguing that the municipality of the capital should launch a trial of participatory budgeting in a minimum of one of its sixteen districts. Although losing, only gaining the support of a minority of the elected politicians in city hall, it managed to set municipal democracy on the agenda again. As we work to radicalize our demands and the participatory institutions in local government, these alliances will probably fall and new ones will be forged. We have to expect that many of people talking of participatory democracy today – not excluding the “participatory Left” – will reveal their real faces, and fall off as we demand the expansion participatory government.
Sure enough, even this road has pitfalls of reformism. Most importantly, because forms of direct democracy can to a certain extent co-exist with statist forms of government, and as participatory budgeting all too clearly shows, some degree of “popular power” can be granted in today’s society. There are no guarantees that this strategy will succeed, but there are a few things we can do to work for its realization. First of all, we have to ensure that we have an organization with clear principles that states where we want to go. This organization would have to control the members that make alliances or enter municipal government through local elections, by establishing mechanisms of permanent scrutiny and the possibility of recall. It is the organization that should decide when its members or local groups should withdraw from a certain campaign, and judge whether its delegates have expressed the right opinions and vote in the best possible way in a city council. A great threat is that our movement could become completely entangled in the day-to-day realities of local government, or that it becomes satisfied with its own achievements and does not want to strive further. I cannot see any other way than to maintain our revolutionary vision of a Communalist society, and the knowledge that in order to achieve this we have to divest the State and capitalist institutions of their power.
This strategy might seem reminiscent of André Gorz’ idea of “non-reformist reforms,” or “gains in the way people live, in laws, in structures, in consciousness, in our own organization, which improve peoples lives but also create a new platform from which to fight for still further improvements.”(28) But our strategy must be far more sophisticated than this. Whereas Gorz’ strategy does not distinguish between gains that might enforce structures of government that we in reality fight and gains that might create a platform for achieving ever more rights and freedoms, communalists want to develop programs to ensure that our demands today correspond with our ends for the future. As Eirik Eiglad explains “our maximum demands require fundamental social change to be actualized, our minimum demands can be achieved within the existing society – in fact, immediately – and it is essentially the task of the transitional demands to provide the programmatic link between what is possible today with what is desirable for tomorrow. They are meant to illustrate the transition from today’s realities to our ultimate social visions, and comes to life through a programmatic commitment in political practice.”(29) Achieving a democratic form of government based on popular assemblies and mandated delegation is part of our maximum program. The initiation of participatory budgeting could be part of our minimum demand, and expanding the participatory system by steadfastly empowering the popular assemblies and their delegates would be part of our transitional demands. Needless to say, this program would have to include a host of other demands that express the richness of our vision. In addition, many other areas of present day society will have to be changed before our political, economic, social and cultural goals are to be actualized.
If we are to realize our vision, it is not enough to propagate our dreams. We must convince people of the practicality of our ideals; how to fight for concrete social changes today, and how to set up a new skeleton of democratic institutions for tomorrow. Participatory budgeting is thus an example to be inspired by, and learn from, but not to automatically import to our societies. Former Mayor of Porto Alegre, Raul Pont, was right when he said “that the [participatory budget] cannot be automatically copied: only the method can be emulated. How to act in order to set it up elsewhere depends on the degree of political experience and knowledge of its peculiarities that each reality possesses. Every municipality has its own story and its own tradition.”(30) But this is only half the argument, the Brazilian methods should not even be emulated in their totality. Participatory budgeting, after all, both shows how a process of democratization of municipalities can be initiated, and how it can be aborted. We should develop our own examples of municipal government to convince people that a direct democratic polity is realistic, fight for concrete changes in our own municipalities in a programmatic fashion, and finally set up a new skeleton of democratic institutions by confederating these emerging examples.
Some say that we are too small to be able to do anything else than dream of another world, but in fact we are too small to be hoping that our dreaming by itself will have an impact on broad segments of the people. We cannot afford to discard the idea of entering into alliances with movements who are less radical than ourselves, or the idea of entering city-councils to democratize municipal institutions. But this rests on our capability to create an organization that can work to expand such experiments in direct democracy and popular participation into a powerful and truly political movement. The promise of participatory budgeting is that it envisages a future where the administration does what the people decide, our task is to ensure that this becomes a living reality in our societies.

1. The international movement Attac, for example, is with its focus on introducing taxes on currency-speculation accepting the logic of current financial markets.
2. Ignacio Ramonet, “ The promise of Porto Alegre,” Le Monde Diplomatique, France, January 2001.
3. Hilary Wainwright, ”People Power,” The Guardian, 18.07.2003.
4. For two excellent expositions of Communalism, see “The Communalist Project” (Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society # 2, November 2002) by Murray Bookchin, the originator of Communalism as a political philosophy , and “Communalism as Alternative” (Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society # 1, October 2002), the editorial statement of the journal Communalism, drafted by Eirik Eiglad.
5. Official information from the Municipality of Recife (
6. Marion Gret and Yves Sintomer, The Porto Alegre Experiment – Learning Lessons for Better Democracy (New York: Zed Books, 2005), pp. 64 –65.
7. According to Gret and Sintomer, “local taxes went from 85 million reis (about half the sum in US dollars) in 1988, to 163 million reis in 1991, before climbing to 246 million reis in 1999.” Gret and Sintomer, The Porto Alegre Experiment, p. 54.
8. Rebecca Abers, Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), p. 121.
9. Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participatory Democracy in Porto Alegre (California: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 3.
10. Although this figure should be met with some degree of commonsensical skepticism, there is no reason to doubt that the participatory budget has extended effects in fostering increased activity at a neighborhood level. Luiz Arnaldo Campos, “On the City-Congress in Belem do Para, Brazil,” lecture at the International Conference on Participatory Democracy in Stockholm, October 9 –10, 2004.
11. Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, p. 491.
12. Gret and Sintomer, The Porto Alegre Experiment, p. 22.
13. Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, p. 88.
14. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre: Toward a Redistributive Democracy,” in Politics and Society, Vol. 26, No. 4, December 1998, p. 487.
15. The World Bank Group, online course on “Accountability and Transparency in Municipal Governments” (, accessed 07/10/06).
16. Carsten Herzberg, “Participatory Budgets in Germany and Europe: A Report on the Process and Results,” presentation for the Norwegian Commission on Local Democracy, 11.01.06, Centre March Bloch, Berlin (E-mail:
17. Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, pp. 50-51.
18. America Vera-Zavala, Deltagande demokrati (Stockholm: Agora, 2003), p. 34 (my translation from Swedish).
19. Platform of The Mayorship of Porto Alegre, 1988, cited in Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, p. 67 (emphasis added).
20. Hillary Wainwright, Reclaim the State : Experiments in Popular Democracy (London: Verso 2003) p. 186.
21. Robert Dahl, After the Revolution: Authority in a Good Society (New Haven: Yale University Press 1990), p. 52.
22. The title of Wainwrights book, Reclaim the State, is telling. What is there really to reclaim, when the State was never possessed by the people in the first place?
23. Wainwright, Reclaim the State, p. 11.
24. Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), pp. 4 –5.
25. Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology, p. 54.
26. Bookchin, “The Communalist Project.”
27. According to the Norwegian Municipal Act, an inhabitant of a given municipality may launch a “citizens-intiative” by collecting a certain amount of signatures for a proposal to city-council. The city-council has to debate and vote on the proposal within a year.
28. Michael Albert, “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” on Zmag ( The reason I use a quote from Michael Albert and not André Gorz is merely to show that Gorz’ ideas are still around in the radical movement today. Noam Chomsky’s concept of “expanding the cage,” it should be noted, does not differ very much from the Gorzian concept of “non-reformist reforms.”
29. Eirik Eiglad, “Libertarian Municipalism and the Radical Program,” in Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society #7 (October 2005).
30. Interview with Raul Pont, former mayor of Porto Alegre, “Informality as a culture of dialogue: Three Mayors of Porto Alegre face-to-face,” unpublished manuscript, by Giovanni Allegretti (E-mail:


8 Comments so far
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very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

Comment by Idetrorce

Participatory Budgetting in combination with other reforms should provide a strong floor, assuming that shared governance is emphasized at all levels.
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