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Participatory Budgeting: Towards Militant Citizenship

Participatory Budgeting NYC Materials. By Daniel Latorre. Licensed under Creative Commons

Participatory Budgeting NYC Materials. By Daniel Latorre. Licensed under Creative Commons

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On one side, protesters aligned with truth, justice, and freedom (or danger, disorder, and violence). On the other, police aligned with repression, inequality, and fascism (or order, rule of law, and safety). In the middle, a barricade divides the two.

This somewhat romantic picture of Absolute Good and Absolute Evil underlies many assumptions we have about social justice struggles. Often discussions about social change become impossible. One is either “with us, or against us.” American or terrorist. Revolutionary or pig.

In addition to the obvious communication challenges such a rubric presents, there are consequences for what we understand as effective activism. Some imagine that social change must come from a mythical outside to be truly transformative. Others immediately discount ideas that seem external, either with an appeal to pragmatism or an outright fear of the outside as dangerous.

This choice between being a militant and being a citizen is a false one. Participatory budgeting offers a different model for social justice claims to be addressed. In a participatory budgeting model, citizens direct how a portion of a city budget is to be spent. The Participatory Budgeting Project notes that while “each experience is different, most follow a similar basic process: residents brainstorm spending ideas, volunteer budget delegates develop proposals based on these ideas, residents vote on proposals, and the government implements the top projects.”1

Originating in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, participatory budgeting was introduced at a time when one third of the city’s residents lived in slums, without access to basic needs like “clean water, sanitation, medical facilities, and schools.”2 In three years, public housing increased from 1,700 residents to 27,000 more. After nine years, sewer and water services reached 98% of residents, as opposed to a previous 75%, and the number of schools quadrupled.3

Significantly, participants are almost overwhelmingly from the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society. According to Giapaolo Baiocchi, “participants at all levels are poorer, less educated, and more likely to be black than the city averages.”4 In addition, each year “a substantial proportion of participants are first-timers, without any prior participation in civil society.”5 Instead of a regime of professional politicians deciding how to spend money, participatory budgeting offers a means for society’s most marginalized to operate power themselves. As a result their living conditions improve, and social inequality decreases.

In stark contrast, the current American model favors the election of representatives to spend our tax dollars for us. The poorest and most marginalized are completely ignored, with neither Presidential candidate directly addressing the working classes in any of the debates this election. As Jonathan Neale notes,

“There are 206 million adult American citizens who can vote. Of them, 62 million voted for Obama, 60 million voted for Romney. But 84 million eligible voters did not vote…

The non voters are a majority of people under 50. They are a majority of  people who have not graduated from college. They are a majority of  people in households making less than $50,000 (£32,000) a year. They are a majority of Hispanics. They are a majority of the working class…

The reason they don’t vote is not that they are stupid or apathetic. It is that they are not allowed to, or that they think none of the politicians will help them.”6

The group of non-voters dwarfs the group of Americans who do vote, exceeding the totals for Romney and Obama by over 20 million.

Neale identifies this massive civic disengagement as a result of protracted voter suppression campaigns7 as well as disenchantment with the American political apparatus. Disenchantment should come as no surprise, as foreclosures sweep the nation and the U.S. census finds that 48% of Americans are poor or low-income, with the majority of low-income families spending over one-third of their income on housing, and an additional fifth on daycare when the mother works.8 Homelessness in turn reveals an awful contradiction at the center of our current iteration of the American dream. There are approximately 5 to 25 times as many empty homes as there are homeless Americans, depending on which figures are used.9

While participatory budgeting will not solve all our problems, it offers a way for excluded citizens to realize their demands for social justice. Indeed, Chicago’s 49thward and New York City already have participatory budgeting structures in place, and Vallejo, California has become the first city in America to adopt citywide participatory budgeting.10 Worldwide, over 1,500 cities employ participatory budgeting, allocating as much as 20% of their municipal budgets.11

Crucially, participatory budget structures alone are insufficient to guarantee a just society. Some socially controversial spending, like sexual and reproductive rights related expenditures, may not be sufficiently protected. It is also unclear how participatory budgeting could restrain American militarism abroad or address structural unemployment. Major economies like the military and prison-industrial complexes, as well as global trade imbalances, seem at first glance to escape the democratic oversight provided by participatory budgeting structures.

On the other hand, participatory budgeting may provide a crucial training ground for communities to self-organize and build civic power.  As a democratic model based on participation from the bottom up, it neither pushes activists outside the system nor fully captures them within it. As Baiocchi notes, social movements “can force the state into democratic innovations that in some cases shape the polity itself, in ways that blur distinctions between movement and state.”12

Perhaps a widespread deployment of participatory budgeting in America could provide a fertile training ground for even larger, more systemic attacks on social injustice. Citizens could learn to deliberate and reach agreement across differences, and also build political investments in their communities. This solidarity, which as we saw in Brazil is particularly attractive for the poor and the workers, could be the basis of a powerful series of reforms to restructure our society for the better.

The Participatory Budgeting Project has information and opportunities to bring participatory budgeting to your community on their website. Many cities already have citizens organizing for participatory budgeting.


Bobo is a writer, artist, and aspiring business owner. He currently researches human-machine interaction at Duke University.

  1. Participatory Budgeting Project. http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/about-participatory-budgeting/what-is-pb/ []
  2. “Participatory Budgeting in Brazil,” World Bank and Indian Institute of Management case study, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTEMPOWERMENT/Resources/14657_Partic-Budg-Brazil-web.pdf []
  3. “Participatory Budgeting in Brazil,” World Bank and Indian Institute of Management case study, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTEMPOWERMENT/Resources/14657_Partic-Budg-Brazil-web.pdf []
  4. Baiocchi, Giapaolo. Militants and Citizens, p. 14. []
  5. Baiocchi, Giapaolo. Militants and Citizens, p. 14. []
  6. Neale, Jonathan. “Obama delivered nothing, and now he promises nothing.” Socialist Worker Online, November 10, 2012. http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=29969 []
  7. “Voter fraud” is a well-documented excuse to deny people of color and the working class the vote. See the New York University School of Law’s policy brief for just one study: http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/policy_brief_on_the_truth_about_voter_fraud/ []
  8. “Census shows 1 in 2 people are poor or low-income.” Salon.com, December 15, 2011. http://www.salon.com/2011/12/15/census_shows_1_in_2_people_are_poor_or_low_income/ []
  9. Amnesty International reports 18.5 million vacant homes, with 3.5 million homeless people. December 21, 2011. http://blog.amnestyusa.org/us/housing-its-a-wonderful-right/
    The 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress reports 649,917 homeless people. http://www.hudhre.info/documents/2010HomelessAssessmentReport.pdf []
  10. See: http://participatorybudgeting49.wordpress.com/


    http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/PB-Vallejo-launch-press-release.pdf []

  11. See: http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/about-participatory-budgeting/where-has-it-worked/

    http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/resources/examples-of-participatory-budgeting/ []

  12. Baiocchi, Giapaolo. Militants and Citizens, p. xi []

  • http://www.facebook.com/mattcavedon Matt Cavedon

    I think it would lead to a total public grab of property for the sake of collectively-managed welfare, none of which I like. But it was interesting.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bobo.bosekolanu Bobo Bose-Kolanu

      Okay. At some point though (and this is a debate I’ve been having with my “leftist” friends as well), the line between problem and solution blurs once the reform cuts deeply enough. I mean, what would be the difference between participatory budgeting, and a group of people coming together and voluntarily contributing money to a common pot and then using it to do things they wanted, deciding upon that in a participatory fashion?

      There’s some difference, but I feel like it’s quite slight at that point…

      • http://www.facebook.com/mattcavedon Matt Cavedon

        Several voluntary pots versus one big one collected by the IRS. Yeah, if we’re talking a hippie commune, the line’s probably pretty blurry. But once you get to the point where you even have the hippies over here and the synagogue over there, I think there has to be plurality. Besides, if it’s voluntary, every last person gets a say in how much they are willing to contribute and what purposes they’ll help with. Democratic participation means 50% plus one sets both of those. That’s a dangerous way to foster a sense of entitlement, conformity, and utter suspicion over your neighbor’s every choice. Especially once you get the demagogues.

        • http://www.facebook.com/bobo.bosekolanu Bobo Bose-Kolanu

          I’m just not sure it’s wise to split the people up too much. Voluntary association is cool and I’m for it, but certain things are bad and should be overcome: racism, sexism, etc. So people need to learn how to talk across differences and work that stuff out. Building civic engagement in participatory budgeting might afford a platform for that process to begin. Self-selecting affinity groups with their own private money pots reproduce and intensify pre-existing social ties, including hierarchies. That seems bad to me.

          “Besides, if it’s voluntary, every last person gets a say in how much they are willing to contribute and what purposes they’ll help with. Democratic participation means 50% plus one sets both of those” — these are questions about taxation, which are good to raise and I’m not entirely sure how to respond to them.

          The point about transparent taxation being dangerous for socially unpopular but ethically necessary spending still stands though (I know I provided sexual and reproductive rights as my example, which you probably disagree with, but I’m sure you can think of other examples which you would agree with).

          • http://www.facebook.com/mattcavedon Matt Cavedon

            Then I think you have to persuade people of the values of diversity, not force everyone into one big mess of a democratic commune. The latter will breed a lot of resentment, especially when the system is abused and denies people the right to provide for their own selves and families first. Charity and love are grown by expanding those first obligations and appealing to free will, not by trying to supplant them.

          • http://www.facebook.com/mattcavedon Matt Cavedon

            I think freedom is the fastest way to get socially unpopular but ethically necessary spending – you only need one angel donor, or a few like-minded Kickstarters, instead of half of everyone who cares to show up pissed at you (and I would be if abortion were the funding in question). Besides, that would mean you wouldn’t have to fund me plus 50%’s abstinence-only sex ed programming. Either of us could opt out even if the other won the vote tally.

          • http://www.facebook.com/bobo.bosekolanu Bobo Bose-Kolanu

            I think this idea about angel investors providing an “out” for socially unpopular but ethically necessary spending is pretty interesting. The argument I see against it is that some things should not be left to the whims of any individual. Nothing about being rich gives one more qualifications to make ethical decisions that impact others.

            And to the point of persuading people of the value of diversity, well, the possibility of persuasion presupposes a democracy. To me it seems we either decide to believe in democracy, and figure this stuff out together, or we decide we don’t believe in democracy, and stop pretending (a la representative democracy, which I feel is a sham).

            And I feel uncomfortable with this “not forcing people” claim. It seems to resonate with arguments made against school integration to support “separate but equal,” which of course was not equal but was ethically abhorrent.

            Finally, if angel investors really were the answer, then there would already be angel investors swooping in to protect those less fortunate. Given America’s rising social inequality that’s clearly not happening. I think if we take the ideas of community, nation, and common good seriously, then we have to come together as the commons, as the people, and act together.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mattcavedon Matt Cavedon

    Maybe in small doses, like managing a welfare budget already set, but I am hesitant for fear of it being captured by either a few demagogues or idiosyncrats.