2000: Deepening Democracy

Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright

As the tasks of the state have become more complex and the size of polities larger and more heterogeneous, the institutional forms of liberal democracy developed in the nineteenth century — representative democracy plus techno-bureaucratic administration — seem increasingly ill-suited to the novel problems we face in the twenty-first century. “Democracy” as a way of organizing the state has come to be narrowly identified with territorially-based competitive elections of political leadership for legislative and executive offices. Yet, increasingly, this mechanism of political representation seems ineffective in accomplishing the central ideals of democratic politics: facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions of the democratic ideal, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation’s wealth.

The Right of the political spectrum has taken advantage of this apparent decline in the effectiveness of democratic institutions to escalate its attack on the very idea of the affirmative state. The only way the state can play a competent and constructive role, the Right typically argues, is to dramatically reduce the scope and depth of its activities. In addition to the traditional moral opposition of libertarians to the activist state on the grounds that it infringes on property rights and individual autonomy, it is now widely argued that the affirmative state has simply become too costly and inefficient. The benefits supposedly provided by the state are myths; the costs—both in terms of the resources directly absorbed by the state and of indirect negative effects on economic growth and efficiency—are real and increasing. Rather than seeking to deepen the democratic character of politics in response to these concerns, the thrust of much political energy in the developed industrial democracies in recent years has been to reduce the role of politics altogether. Deregulation, privatization, reduction of social services, and curtailments of state spending have been the watchwords, rather than participation, greater responsiveness, more creative and effective forms of democratic state intervention. As the slogan goes: “The state is the problem, not the solution.”

In the past, the political Left in capitalist democracies vigorously defended the affirmative state against these kinds of arguments. In its most radical form, revolutionary socialists argued that public ownership of the principle means of production combined with centralized state planning offered the best hope for a just, humane and egalitarian society. But even those on the Left who rejected revolutionary visions of ruptures with capitalism insisted that an activist state was essential to counteract a host of negative effects generated by the dynamics of capitalist economies -- poverty, unemployment, increasing inequality, under-provision of public goods like training and public health. In the absence of such state interventions, the capitalist market becomes a “Satanic Mill,” in Karl Polanyi’s metaphor, that erodes the social foundations of its own existence. These defenses of the affirmative state have become noticeably weaker in recent years, both in their rhetorical force and in their practical political capacity to mobilize. Although the Left has not come to accept unregulated markets and a minimal state as morally desirable or economically efficient, it is much less certain that the institutions it defended in the past can achieve social justice and economic well being in the present.

Perhaps this erosion of democratic vitality is an inevitable result of complexity and size. Perhaps we should expect no more than limited popular constraint on the activities of government through regular, weakly competitive elections. Perhaps the era of the “affirmative democratic state” — the state which plays a creative and active role in solving problems in response to popular demands — is over, and a retreat to privatism and political passivity is the unavoidable price of “progress.” But perhaps the problem has more to do with the specific design of our institutions than with the tasks they face as such. If so, then a fundamental challenge for the Left is to develop transformative democratic strategies that can advance our traditional values—egalitarian social justice, individual liberty combined with popular control over collective decisions, community and solidarity, and the flourishing of individuals in ways which enable them to realize their potentials.
This volume explores a range of empirical responses to this challenge. They constitute real-world experiments in the redesign of democratic institutions, innovations that elicit the enerergy and influence of ordinary people, often drawn from the lowest strata of society in the solution of problems that plague them. Below, we briefly introduce four such experiments:

  • Neighborhood governance councils in Chicago address the fears and hopes of inner city Chicago residents by turning an urban bureaucracy on its head and devolving substantial power over policing and public schools.
  • Habitat Conservation Planning under the Endangered Species Act convenes stakeholders and empowers them to develop ecosystem governance arrangements that will satisfy the double imperatives of human development and the protection of jeopardized species.
  • The participatory budget of Porto Alegre, Brazil enables residents of that city to participate directly in forging the city budget and thus use public monies previously diverted to patronage payoffs to pave their roads and electrify their neighborhoods.
  • Panchayat reforms in West Bengal and Kerala, India have created both direct and representative democratic channels that devolve substantial administrative and fiscal development power to individual villages.

Though these four reforms differ dramatically in the details of their design, issue areas, and scope, they all aspire to deepen the ways in which ordinary people can effectively participate in and influence policies which directly affect their lives. From their common features, we call this reform family empowered participatory governance (EPG). They are participatory in their reliance upon the commitment and capacities of ordinary people; deliberative because they institute reason-based decision-making; and empowered since they attempt to tie action to discussion.
The exploration of empowered participation as a progressive institutional reform strategy advances the conceptual and empirical understanding of democratic practice. Conceptually, EPG presses the values of participation, deliberation, and empowerment to the apparent limits of prudence and feasibility. Taking participatory democracy seriously in this way throws both its vulnerabilities and advantages into sharp relief. We also hope that injecting empirically centered examination into current debates about deliberative democracy will paradoxically expand the imaginative horizons of that discussion at the same time that it injects a bit of realism. Much of that work has been quite conceptually focussed, and so has failed to detail or evaluate institutional designs to advance these values. By contrast, large and medium scale reforms like those mentioned above offer an array of real alternative political and administrative designs for deepening democracy. As we shall see, many of these ambitious designs are not just workable, but may surpass conventional democratic institutional forms on the quite practical aims of enhancing the responsiveness and effectiveness of the state while at the same time making it more fair, participatory, deliberative, and accountable. These benefits, however, may be offset by costs such as their alleged dependence on fragile political and cultural conditions, tendencies to compound background social and economic inequalities, and weak protection of minority interests.

This volume of the Real Utopias Project lays out an abstract model of Empowered Participatory Governance that distills the distinctive features of these experiments into three central principles and three institutional design features. This is followed by four detailed discussions of the case studies by scholars who have studied them extensively, and then a series of commentaries on both the general principles of EPG and the cases.