Reforming Local Democracy in an Independent Scotland

British politics is currently consumed in madness. Turn on your TV and it will be Brexit. Turn on your radio and it will be Brexit. Walk into a café and listen to a local political preacher ramble on about, you guessed it, Brexit. Yet within the realms of the Yes movement there has been much debate over the political vision of an independent Scotland. Recently I covered the topic of Modern Monetary Theory but would now like to introduce another model. This one is not an economic one but instead political. The model I refer to is Participatory Democracy.

Participatory democracy is a democratic model that empowers participants by offering political capital they can take voluntarily. Unlike liberal representative democracy, where citizens elect qualified (however defined) individuals to represent their constituency, participatory democracy creates various networks between groups or constituencies. These networks will have open forums for local residents to attend debates and vote on local issues that affect them. These local groups can be seen as “assemblies”. It is worth noting that participatory democracy is not the same as direct democracy. Athenian style democracy formulates all citizens meeting within a singular hall to debate and discuss issues of relevance. In participatory democracy citizens that take part in local assemblies can put themselves forward for a certain committee of interest, which will be tasked to look at a specific aspect of the local community. These committees can look at various subjects from welfare to infrastructure. This means the PD model is multi-layered with different roles but the same level of political capital. The committee members would be tasked with meeting experts with their proposals and understand what is required to meet their goals. When committees have done the relevant research they will return to the local assemblies and share their findings. After all data is shared the assembly will vote on how they wish to see resources spent. This could, if needed or wanted, be taken further with a local referendum with each ballot detailing proposals with predicted costs and benefits (socially and economically). When the results return the local assembly can greenlight projects and begin production. This form of democracy develops two social attitudes: educative interest and transparency. Delegates are held more responsible for the work they do at local assemblies, thus this encourages a more transparent process. The process itself allows individuals to obtain new skills and knowledge not previously known: expanding their educative capacity and overall productive output in the long term.

The offer of greater political capital to citizens is one which would usually expected to be met with praise, as political empowerment has been a dominant factor for social movements since the early 20th century. However critics would argue that such political capital is simply too much a demand for the regular citizen. Mark Warren has been vocal critic of this model for some time, not only arguing it is too much demand but the citizen would not have interest to begin with. Warren urges progressive democrats to drop the “romantic dogma”[1] as democratic participation in general is not actually looked upon with positive reasoning. Instead Warren argues that minimum participation in democratic models is merely the least bad option when organising power. Warren’s neoliberal view of democracy is very much in line with competitive democratic theory and would thus argue that any model must maintain greater levels of bureaucracy. However his criticism of participatory democracy is lacking real depth. When looking at already existing models evidence shows that not only do citizens voluntarily take political capital but are also able to adjust to convoluted areas of economic and social issues. One prime example is Porto Alegre is Brazil, which has run the PD model for two decades and is often cited by Carole Pateman. When looking at participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre estimates show between 17,000 to 35,000 people participate in local budget forums[2]. When looking at demographics that participate in such forums we find a reversal to conclusive data in liberal democracies: lower income citizens are far more likely to take part in PD democratic model than higher earners. With tens of thousands taking part in budget forums it shows Warren’s comments to be misguided. Porto Alegre citizens can see the relation between participating in such forums and the final outcome, encouraging greater participation. These forums also allow local communities to justify their conclusions, encouraging them to seek solutions for the community as a whole. This argument could be refuted as the World Bank Report estimates that only 20% of the city participates in these forums. However one must consider the way in which PD is constructed as it creates a counter-cyclical system. When citizen satisfaction is high there is less need to use political capital, but it times of recession the use of political capital increases. Pateman points out the satisfaction brought by the PD model, writing: “two decades of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre shows…democratization is feasible.”[3] Even putting Pateman’s conclusions aside, having tens of thousands attend local budget forums is a success within itself.

Other critics would argue that Porto Alegre is an outlier. Only democracies that lack diversity within the given model can be successful in their eyes, arguing that pluralism creates a confined society. In modern diverse societies the separation of class, gender, ethnicity, religion and geography can lead to marginalised groups being put to the side by the majority. This argument was proposed by Joseph Schumpeter, arguing pluralism is in danger of excluding many of the most vulnerable in society as humans are not rational enough to reach out to others[4]. For Schumpeter true democracy and citizenship could instead be found in free markets and not state institutions. However Schumpeter’s argument is inaccurate. Realist theory leaves surplus labour and resources idle, allowing a wealthy minority to exclude a vulnerable minority. With PD citizens can fully utilise both when sought out by the masses. Iain Young extends this by arguing democratic institutions have proven respect and cooperation is found between different groups. Schumpeter’s view also assumes that shared values are a precondition to communication. But this cannot logically be correct; if shared values are a precondition for communication then it is pointless as no one needs to revise their views[5].

Whilst criticism has come from the liberal perspective other progressive democrats also hold concerns with the participatory model. Such concerns usually come from deliberative democrats, some which are raised specifically by Emily Hauptmann. Hauptmann presents the case that deliberative democracy is a better democratic model both practically and philosophically, as it tackles the issues of the free market and private control whilst also not being utopian in image. Participatory democracy creates too much of a Marxist image of “seize the means of production”, whereas deliberative democrats argue that their proposal would simply redirect existing resources into democratic direction[7]. Whilst deliberative is seen as more socialist, participatory is seen as more Marxist. The labelling of participatory democracy as “Marxist” may not seem like a criticism to others, especially if you are Marxist. Indeed socialist theory shares many elements with the Marxist school of thought. Participatory democracy does share elements on the idea of society with Marxist theory, but the model puts great focus on the social and economic empowerment of the individual within institutions regardless of the private or public sector. The PD model does not strictly argue for more state control but instead the reformation of all current institutions. The individual and the institution they mingle within cannot be separated into different factors. Businesses that operate within the market are also seen as political institutions and thus should democratize. This point is further made by J. Moon arguing that democratization can take place anywhere in any realm. He argues participatory democracy allows for the elimination of hierarchical relationships as those who participate realise the importance of equality within private or public institutions for a stable environment [8]. Therefore participatory democracy does not require a revolution, despite how it may look. It is about the empowerment of individuals within all realms of society and thus can tackle issues of distribution both socially and economically.
Cameron Archibald

Participatory democracy may pride itself in tackling issues of capitalism domestically; however the turn of the 21st century has brought a new age of capitalism that has spread around the globe. Benjamin R. Barber proposes that many democracies face being undermined by the growing might of markets through globalisation. Barber cites a number of examples that show the might of capitalism. He mentions the expansion of the Euro currency and integrating European economies, also highlighting global capitalist economies are refocusing on issues around free trade. Barber specifically argues that free trade has burst to life under the British Empire, as it was a dominant force on the global stage in the trade of goods and services, forcing the world to follow such an economic model. The finance industry itself has had heavy involvement in democratic institutions also, with private funding from powerful individuals shift influence from the holders of political capital to agents of the free market[8]. This shift is a shift of sovereignty itself. Whilst Barber is correct on his description of globalisation in the turn to the 21st century his argument that the British Empire pushed for free market capitalism is incorrect. The British Empire’s growth largely comes from the protectionist policies of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who launched an industrial development programme with tariff protections. These protections allowed British protections to prosper. This argument is furthered by Ha-Joon Chang arguing that by the time the British Empire did adopt a free trade policy its success only came from its monopoly power gained from protectionist policies rather than market principles. The British Empire made free trade look successful because at the time (1886) it made up 2.5% of the world population, yet had 20% of global manufacturing output and 46% of world trade in manufactured goods (1870)[9].This point is highlighted further with corresponding figures to China: 19% of the world population yet make only 15% in global manufacturing output and 14% in world trade in manufactured goods[10]. It is also worth noting that many free trade agreements were not in fact “free”, as the British Empire pressured developing nations to open their markets or face full scale invasion. Putting aside Barber’s flawed example, globalisation does not leave democracies powerless against financial markets. This argument originates from the shifting paradigm of Keynesian economics to a new neoliberal era; one which many would say is misguided. Financial markets will struggle to bribe or influence singular representatives as political capital is not held by one or few people, but society as a whole. Bill Mitchell argues that the nation state can tackle global financial markets, more specifically if they are a currency issuing democracy using tools such as capital controls[11]. This means that local communities that wish to propose new progressive projects can do so without fear of punishment through foreign exchange. Indeed this in itself is more favoured with nations that are the monopoly supplier of their own currency, however such a monopoly is a tool for democratic participants, rather than an external agent attempting to influence the state.

There is much debate to be had in an independent Scotland about how we want to shape our future. I am attracted to the Participatory Democracy model. However I am also keen what others have to say. So what do you think?


[1] Warren, M. (1996). What Should we Expect from More Democracy?. Political Theory, 24(2), pp.243
[2] Pateman, C. (2012). Participatory Democracy Revisited. Perspectives on Politics, 10(01), pp. 11
[3] Pateman, C. (2012). Participatory Democracy Revisited. Perspectives on Politics, 10(01), pp. 12
[4] Connoly, W. (2010). Pluralism in Political Analysis. Aldine Transaction, pp.186
[5] Young, I. (2002). Inclusion and Democracy. Community Development Journal, 37(1), pp.41-42
[6] Hauptmann, E. (2001). Can Less Be More? Leftist Deliberative Democrats’ Critique of Participatory Democracy. Polity, 33(3), pp.406-407
[7] Moon, J. (1972). Participation and Democracy: A Review Essay. Midwest Journal of Political Science, 16(3), pp.483-484
[8] Barber, B. (2000). Can Democracy Survive Globalization?. Government and Opposition, 35(03), pp.378
[9] Chang, H. (2014). Economics. London: Pelican/Penguin Books, pp.61
[10] Chang, H. (2014). Economics. London: Pelican/Penguin Books, pp.62
[11] Mitchell, W. and Fazi, T. (2017). Reclaiming the State. London: Pluto Press, pp.6

Comments (2)

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  1. W T Low says:

    Having read and reread a number of times the article by John Naughton on Shoshana Zuboff’s new book,”The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” in Sunday’s Observer(20/01/2019), your article is really timely. As Zuboff suggests Surveillance Capitalism in its ability to modify behaviour is both anti democratic and lacking in moral authority it is perhaps appropriate that we seek to counter this threat by engaging people in a bottom up approach in deciding our priorities and how to achieve them.
    I like the idea of participatory democracy, but how to engage with people and ensure participation? I have no faith that it could be driven from the top, as it appears that currently all government in Britain is driven by the centralising idea. It may be that individual projects, driven from the grass roots are the way ahead.
    Our village is losing the Post Office. A number of us have had a discussion about a response and we are currently investigating the possibility of setting up a community cooperative to run the Post Office as a non-profit organisation, staffed by volunteers. If our venture were to prove successful, then that could be an introduction to a methodology by which the village could decide on our priorities and seek to achieve them, using whatever resources we could raise from a range of sources.


  2. Al says:

    I think most people will agree or at least quickly come to the realisation that corporations are incompatible with democracy, and as such is one of the places where participatory democracy is most needed.

    Does it mean we should never have private enterprises?? I don’t think so, but I think it’s worth discussing their role especially when they become large or run services. Those who work in the organisation having a say in the management and what happens with profits would go a long way to reducing their antidemocratic nature.

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