“We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.”Noam Chomsky
Participatory democracy is a tool. It aims to provide every individual the opportunity to have a direct role in forming and passing political decisions, giving communities a voice outside of elections. If the etymology of democracy translates into “people rule,” then this would make participatory democracy the purest democratic form. It was famously practiced by the Greek in Athens, and in almost all Indigenous American nations throughout their histories. The Iroquois Confederacy is known as the longest recorded example of large-scale participatory democracy. According to colonial emissary Cadwallader Colden they had, “such absolute notions of liberty that they allow no kind of superiority of one over another, and banish all servitude from their territories.” Some think so highly of participism they consider it the only road to Utopia.
Swedish political scientist Jörgen Westerståhl identified four distinguishable types of participatory democracy: electoral participation, direct participation using referendum, the use of councils and local assemblies, and meritocratic participation in political organization based on knowledge. None of these have to be exclusive, and the strongest democracies would likely include elements of all of them. We will now look at a few examples of participism.
“Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”)—also the national motto of France and the Republic of Haiti—was one of the slogans associated with the Paris Commune between March and May 1871. It was a tribute to the old sentiments of the French Revolution, where the slogan first originated, and a testimony to society’s natural commitment to mutual aid and our yearning for social organization which complements this. Arguably one of the most influential events in modern history, the Commune marked the first recorded example of workers establishing government from the ground up, inspiring classically libertarian movements ever since.
Enraged citizens founded the Paris Commune following a spontaneous uprising in the echo of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. A combination of an increasingly radicalized workforce and military—who harbored growing discontent over capitalism, militarism, the patriarchy, and the lack of actual democracy in Europe—along with the power vacuum caused by the collapse of the French government made the political climate ripe for a dramatic leap forward into grassroots populism. Parisians recognized they would rather rule themselves than be ruled by a group of elites.
The militant Communards, consisting of Parisian workers assisted by the French National Guard, overthrew the Parisian government on March 18, 1871. They organized the city into several confederal districts—or Communes—which operated on the basis of highly decentralized, semi-direct democracy. The new government focused on democracy and labor rights. Citizens elected representatives into communal councils, 92 representatives for every 20,000 residents, with instantly recallable councilmen and policies, mirroring the popular libertarian socialist ideas of the time involving imperative mandates.
This is what Gustave Courbet, a councilman working with the Arts Commission, offered from his perspective working within the Commune:
“I get up, have breakfast and preside over meetings for twelve hours each day. My head has begun to spin, but despite this mental torment which I am not used to, I am enchanted. Paris is a true paradise! No police, no nonsense, to exaction of any kind, no arguments! Everything in Paris rolls like clockwork. All the organized bodies are federated and run themselves. . . . The Paris Commune is more successful than any government has ever been.”
Some evidence, however, suggests this perspective was particularly optimistic. It’s reasonable to imagine that they wouldn’t have needed so many assemblies to challenge council decisions in the first place if proposals had been formed directly from the bottom through similar assemblies. This is all in a participatory democratic fashion meant to facilitate popular leverage—democracy which doesn’t exclude the individual when it comes to matters which affect them. There was relatively honest, transparent, and horizontal representation compared to (let’s say) the United States—where we are intimidated into electing dictators to sit on dangerous amounts of administrative power—but there was still some concern that the lack of direct involvement in the development of certain decisions would leave the people disenfranchised. If upper-class members of the city hadn’t fled or refused to take part in elections, this might have sooner been the case. Luckily for Paris, positions were filled with all kinds of radical members, including anarchists and socialist republicans, and because of this the revolutionary spirit prevailed.
The government was centered around the material and political wellbeing of the residents as well as prolonging the life of the Commune. Arthur Arnould, an anarchist councilman and a member of the International Workers’ Association, had this to say on life in Paris:
“During [the Commune’s] short reign, not a single man, woman, child, or old person was hungry, or cold, or homeless. . . . It was amazing to see how with only tiny resources, this government not only fought a horrible war for two months, but chased famine from the hearths of the huge population which had had no work for a year. That was one of the miracles of a true democracy.”
Again, despite these sentiments, there were still many who didn’t believe the Commune was radical enough. There were even some who argued that a factor in the Commune’s defeat was the growing conflict between constituent and councilmen, which took away focus from defense (although given the scale and wealth of the Commune its days were unavoidably numbered). This problem would’ve been avoided under a stronger participatory democracy much like what existed in Paris between 1789 and 1795 during the French Revolution, where citizens had the opportunity to form decisions on an equal authoritative level as their elected councilmen, making politicians facilitators acting in accordance to public desire. Such organization removes the divide between administrator and citizen, and nullifies the arrogant belief plaguing all authorities and authority systems that any amount of privilege is best kept by any one individual.
As councilmen fought over power and popularity, and were continuously impeached, citizens more and more came to the conclusion that none of them were entitled to any special administrative authority, a perspective which was likely also rooted in the libertarian socialist, especially Proudhonian, currents in Paris at the time. However, the whole affair still served as evidence that the working-class is capable of organizing from the ground-up without imposed administration or the guidance of a dictatorial party. And thanks to working class involvement in government and leverage from the general public, they were able to almost instantly abolish child labor, end the intertwining of the church and politics, eliminate interests on debt, and abolish the police. This new level of involvement also enabled workers to legally occupy property abandoned by their employer to form co-ops, among a whole plethora of other radical new policies, which again were likely held back by the still impure democracy. The movement was commended by many prominent political thinkers of the time, such as the father of anarcho-collectivism Mikhail Bakunin, who expressed pride for the Commune for resisting the capitalist state as well as a revolutionary dictatorship.
The events of the Paris Commune played an influential role in the politics of another revolution 65 years later, during the Spanish Civil War (1936 — 1939). At this time the country was broken up into four governments and two opposing factions: the Nationalists (fascists) and the Loyalists (anarchists, republicans, and Marxists). Most of Spain, especially Revolutionary Catalonia, became one of the most radical times and places of the 20th century. It received plenty of international reception and involvement, including major political figures such as political activist Emma Goldman, founder of Dadaism Tristan Tzara, and influential author George Orwell.
George Orwell on his arrival in Barcelona, from his book Homage to Catalonia:
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. [. . .] Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”
They achieved a level of liberty and egalitarianism that many Americans think impossible. It was the result of decades of corruption and brutality handed out by the monarchy, military, capitalist robber-barons, and the Catholic Church (many of the revolutionaries were Catholic, for the record), which had the majority of the population turning to radical thought for an alternative. The works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx, Proudhon, Stirner, Élisée Reclus and others became very popular over the course of a generation, especially in Barcelona. Several years before the civil war, workers’ unions across Spain carried out massive general strikes and sabotage campaigns at ever growing numbers, and in 1930 the dictatorship was overthrown. The population quickly established a multi-party republic and began making progressive reforms. This alienated the right-wing tendencies in Spain—fascism, monarchism, liberal capitalism, etc. In July 1936, Francisco Franco, a fascist general under the old monarchy, attempted a coup after uniting these tendencies, facilitating his power with the help of German and Italian forces. Republican Spain managed to form a resistance, but was broken up into three governments: what remained of the Republic, and the more influential Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist governments formed by trade unions and workers’ parties who helped influence the politics of the Republic. The entire region of Catalonia and Aragon quickly established a government on participatory principles.
Emma Goldman, who visited Catalonia between 1936 and 1937, attested that after the democratization productivity rose by around 30–50%. This was before Comintern (controlled by the Soviet Union) ordered the destruction of anarchist territory at the hands of Leninist factions with the threat of withholding resources. Fighting between Leninists and anarchists made the Loyalists even more vulnerable to fascist forces, leading to their defeat. These types of incidents are all too common in history, with Leninists (including Stalinists, Trotskyist, etc.) destroying progress because it doesn’t fit their misanthropic, democratically exclusive principles of vanguardism and “democratic centralism” which they think will somehow lead to freedom, or otherwise because anti-authoritarian currents tend not to defend the state capitalism and imperialism of Leninist states.
In the time of its existence almost all Catalonian communities abolished private property, replacing it with communal housing and a collective of worker-owned co-ops. In the anarchist stronghold of Barcelona, 75% of the economy had been voluntarily collectivised and most resources were distributed on the basis of need. These are the words of Eddie Conlon, written in a publication for the Workers’ Solidarity Movement on the subject of Catalonia:
“If you didn’t want to join the collective you were given some land but only as much as you could work yourself. You were not allowed to employ workers. Not only production was affected, distribution was on the basis of what people needed. In many areas money was abolished. People come to the collective store (often churches which had been turned into warehouses) and got what was available. If there were shortages rationing would be introduced to ensure that everyone got their fair share. But it was usually the case that increased production under the new system eliminated shortages.
In agricultural terms the revolution occurred at a good time. Harvests that were gathered in and being sold off to make big profits for a few landowners were instead distributed to those in need. Doctors, bakers, barbers, etc. were given what they needed in return for their services. Where money was not abolished a ‘family wage’ was introduced so that payment was on the basis of need and not the number of hours worked.
Production greatly increased. Technicians and agronomists helped the peasants to make better use of the land. Modern scientific methods were introduced and in some areas yields increased by as much as 50%. There was enough to feed the collectivists and the militias in their areas. Often there was enough for exchange with other collectives in the cities for machinery. In addition food was handed over to the supply committees who looked after distribution in the urban areas.”
Some of you still might not be convinced that this kind of world is sustainable; perhaps you think it’s in contrast to human nature. Then we should look at participatory democracy, or anarchism, the opposition to monopolies of administrative power, from a different angle. If you believe that humans are inherently selfish, if you distrust humanity, then decentralize the decision-making so no untrustworthy individual has power over another untrustworthy individual, outside of what society—as a sum of all individuals in a given area—consents to. If you think we act in our own interest, then remember that most people have the same interests, and allowing there to be special privilege creates social division that’s harmful for all social life. Stirner argued for “a Union of Egoists” as both an alternative to the state and his definition of society: people working together as self-owning individuals pursuing their own interests in solidarity, encouraged to speak up about any dissatisfaction and embrace their own cause rather than the cause of someone else. However, there is more than enough evidence suggesting that we are at least a combination of both, evolving instincts of empathy and mutual aid in the name of self-preservation.
In 1957, archaeologists discovered the remains of a 50,000 year old Neanderthal—“Shanidar”—who had been kept alive for decades despite being blind, deaf, and possessing injuries which would’ve made him unable to walk or hunt on his own. If social Darwinism is the correct interpretation of human nature, then this man should have been abandoned or killed. Yet there was an emotion—an instinct—much higher and much more secure than this almost suicidal style of cutthroat individualism. Besides the fact that organized society would be impossible if humans weren’t inherently concerned for each other’s well-being, through better or worse, this offers additional evidence that we possess a profound level of selflessness. This isn’t a unique experience to humans, or even primates; trees are known to alert each other of danger through their roots, and cows form a herd around their sick and pregnant to defend against predators. Mutual aid is necessary for virtually all living things, just as a balance in the ecosystem is necessary to sustain our environment, which is also made difficult by the anti-democratic principles of our age. Even if deep down we are just selflessly selfish, creating an environment which brings out the worst of our nature with no functioning democracy to give us a say in the matter is a bad idea.
The anthropologist, sociologist, historian, and anarchist Petr Kropotkin made sure to emphasize our naturally altruistic nature in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
This is among my favorite excerpts:
“It is not love to my neighbor—whom I often do not know at all—which induces me to seize a pail of water and rush towards his house when I see it on fire; it is a far wider, even though more vague feeling or instinct of human solidarity and sociability which moves me. [. . .] It is a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy—an instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution, and which has taught animals and men alike the force they can borrow from the practice of mutual aid and support, and the joys they can find in social life.”
Participatory democracy, then, brings out our most social aspects while still providing us the means to represent ourselves as individuals.
Some readers have probably internally summoned the age-old counter involving “mob rule” or “tyranny of the majority.” Tyranny of the majority, says the critic who thinks the minority will represent them. Personally, I’m far more concerned about tyranny of the few than tyranny of the many, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the constant emphasis on that throughout history has been propaganda against social liberty. You obviously can’t negate the struggle between the individual and society, which I believe is exacerbated when democracy is non-participatory. The scale and level of involvement in democracy determine the individual’s leverage over society; when political influence never leaves the hands of a few people, especially when those people are owned by multinational banks and corporations, that’s when the individual is truly threatened. People who think the individual is somehow more protected by dictatorial concentration of power into the hands of the few are clearly not thinking things through.
Participism is based on the idea of consent.
Participatory economics—because imposed material conditions are a violation of the worker, community, and taxpayer, but not with direct negotiation and consent.
Participatory polity—because abuse of power is inevitable unless each community and individual within that community has political leverage, which depends on direct negotiation and consent via assembly and referendum.
Participatory politics also depend heavily on municipality and decentralized government. If the goal is that people have a say to the same degree they’re affected, then decision-making—especially of the legislative nature—must exist on the smallest functional scale. In other words, while large-scale decisions should remain bottom-up, most decisions should not leave the communities which formed them. It would be unjustifiable for someone living in Alabama to force someone living in Seattle to abide by their decisions. Beyond that, the smaller the scale the more leverage the individual has. Murray Bookchin had this to say on the municipal: “The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality—the city, town, and village—where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy.”
You can have overseers, representation, and managers while still having completely direct democracy. Top-down decision-making doesn’t result in better decisions, it isn’t automatically a meritocracy. It just assimilates people and imposes decisions which the public may or may not benefit from; it is elitist and unstable. It creates political struggle and social hierarchies enforced only through violence, fear, and manipulation. It creates separate interests and the erosion of societies. People understand their own interests instinctively without manipulation, and giving them the opportunity to formulate decisions on an equal basis to those they elect will minimize the corruption created by otherwise hierarchical systems. Participatory democracy is opening democracy up and giving people a voice instead of concentrating power in the hands of the few.
If you need evidence that this could work in the modern world, you must look no further than the Kurds in Rojava. They are probably the best example in a couple of hundred years of how stable this model is even in the most chaotic of circumstances. Rojava practices democratic confederalism, inspired by Bookchin communalism. They are organized into municipal councils which hold assemblies and constrain council authority with mandatory referendum. Any decision which affects the community is brought to a vote, and those who are most affected get the opportunity to state their piece. Their economy is therefore a synthesis of markets and community-planning, and the results are always more socialistic because of human nature itself. All of this while hegemonic powers from around the world destroy themselves and each other from all directions. Despite fascist opposition and constant war and intervention, they’ve consistently pushed and defended advancements in gender equality, environmentalism, pluralism, communalization, restorative justice, direct democracy, and freedom of religion just to name a few.
The biggest lesson since the peak of monarchical despotism should be that consent is the only way a government can derive its legitimacy; when the majority has practically zero impact on what effects them, and conditions negate free will even in electoral politics, then they can’t possibly consent to what’s happening outside of choosing not to organize. People elect politicians because they think it’s necessary to have people sitting on monopolies of decision-making power; people preferred Biden in America this time because he was pushed on us with selective reporting, and we were afraid.
“But what about more progressive candidates, like Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez?” you might be thinking. There’s nothing good or justifiable about her, either. I haven’t trusted her or any other self-proclaimed progressive in politics after she kept trying to push to raise Congress’ salary while refusing to even try for the beneficial changes she ran on. Her publicly denouncing her original politics in favor of neoliberal strategies didn’t help. Her downplaying the genocide at the border made her an enemy. She proved to me and a lot of people that there will be no single hero. I also don’t think it’s necessary or stable for any politicians to have any real political power, and I don’t think consenting to their power except for explicitly strategic reasons (like for the purpose of popularizing certain ideas even if you know they will be betrayed) will ever change anything. What we have now is just electing dictators—we can’t think any more highly of it. I for one do not consent to anyone making my decisions, appointing positions, excluding me from the decision-making that affects my well-being. If more people would stop consenting to it, and embrace participatory politics, then we will begin to see actual change.
I don’t think there needs to be controversy in suggesting there’s a better tactic than begging bought politicians to save us; we should acknowledge that almost anything legal is incapable of making change. So what’s the alternative? It would probably be pointless and even dangerous to put too much faith into any one strategy, but whatever happens we need to highlight horizontal and grassroots principles as much as we can. Working to organize a federated network of mutual aid groups, unions, and platforms would be a good start. I know there are already many people on top of that, so we just need to find and join them.
These networks must have a purpose. We gather support by acting, not merely existing. The situation demands a campaign of direct action, community support, and consistent provocation, challenging the state and uniting communities from below, waiting for the right moment to overturn things and institute a better government on the basis of participatory principles. Some seats in local, non-monopolistic government should be filled, for the sake of taking advantage of existing structures without extreme risk of disappointment, but this always requires caution.
All of this would be relentlessly attacked, but most things worth doing are going to be difficult, and at the very least it would help spark movements that would inevitably result in progress if active and consistent enough. Most importantly, we can’t hide behind the violence of our corporatocratic state. We should never cheer for the oppression of one group over petty squabbles or prejudice. We can never condone it, we can never condone others doing it, even if they try convincing us that it’s in our best interest for the moment. This means no censorship, no wars, no iron fist leaders, no imprisonment, no interrogation, no neglect, and no coercion imposed by or against any members of our communities, especially the most vulnerable. Solidarity is key.