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.