"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Sunday, March 30, 2008


The 10 page photo essay found at the link below provides historical information regarding the development of direct democracy in New England. The longstanding 'town meeting' system of participatory democracy in New England dates back to revolutionary times and was the inspiration for those of the founding fathers who favored a direct system of governance for the new nation they were creating. Unfortunately they did not prevail and a representative system was adopted. Nowadays people in New England get up and voice their opinion on a variety of issues in many towns, in an exercise of participatory democracy that hints at what might have been had the likes of Paine, Jefferson and Henry gotten their way. While the term direct democracy is not one that we often hear in mainstream media or in day-to-day dialogue, the practice is actually quite common in the many towns studied here. - Editor


Thursday, March 27, 2008


In the following interview, Michael Albert expounds on his vision of the participatory economic model that he calls PARECON. Visit his website for more information (link below). - Editor

Michael Albert – On Participatory Economics

Source: http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=46

Michael Albert has coined Parecon (participatory economics) as a term denoting a new type of post-capitalist, self-managing economy. He hopes that Parecon can help inspire and inform activism that wins a new type of classless economy.

An interview to Pavlos Hatzopoulos for Re-public

Pavlos Hatzopoulos: Is Parecon (participatory economics) a blueprint for a future society beyond capitalism?
Michael Albert: It depends what you mean by the word blueprint, but I would say no, it isn’t. Can you imagine, for example, a blueprint for capitalism? I can’t. I could imagine, I guess, a very detailed specification of capitalism as it appears in some country, say in the U.S., or in some other country, say Sweden or Thailand, each of which would differ from one another in countless respects, of course. But even if such a blueprint could be produced, I don’t know what anyone would do with it.

I can also imagine, however, a description of key institutions central to all instances of capitalism, despite the many detailed differences each specific instance has from country to country and time to time. That would be a description of markets for allocation, of private ownership of productive assets, of remuneration for power and property and to an extent output, and of corporate divisions of labor. It would be skeletal and therefore not a blueprint, but it would be nonetheless important in specifying key attributes so that we could say useful things about capitalism per se, which is to say, about all instances of capitalism.

Parecon gives that kind of broad skeletal picture of a type or range of self-managing, classless economies that could come in many instances in different countries, times, etc. To provide that broad picture, or vision, parecon specifies key defining institutions including workers and consumers’ councils, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning. Parecon is therefore not a blueprint of another type of economy, but it is rather a broad description of central features of another type of economy. It is what we need, I think, if we are to be convincing that such an economy is possible and would be desirable.

You also ask about society, not economy, in that you ask if parecon is a blueprint of a new type society. Parecon isn’t even a picture of defining features of a new type participatory society, only of an economy. There is a big difference. To have a broad description of a societal vision rather than just an economic vision would entail having not only a picture for a new type economy–for example, parecon—but also a vision of key features of a new culture, polity, kinship, and perhaps some other aspects of society as well.

So, the bottom line is that parecon offers a picture of key defining features of a new type of post-capitalist, self-managing, and classless economy. It could be part of a picture of a new type of society, yes, but it certainly isn’t itself such a picture.

P.H.: In what sense is Parecon an initiative coming from below?

M.A.: In every sense that I can imagine. After all, what does “coming from below” actually mean? Presumably by “coming from above” you would mean thought up and imposed from some top-down perspective and serving elite interests, as well.

Parecon emerges, instead, from decades -really centuries- of grassroots activism and struggle to attain a classless economy. It learns from past experiments, both successes and failures, as well as from current ones. It is written accessibly, offered publicly. It welcomes and seeks debate, refinement, critique. It doesn’t favor some elite but embodies, instead, classlessness.

Ultimately, however, the extent to which parecon will be adopted and widely held by broad popular constituencies who make it their own, is still to be seen. That will depend on many variables, not least on its merits. Wide public advocacy by popular movements is of course the aim. The hope is that parecon can help inspire and inform activism that wins a new type of classless economy. I don’t know what “from below” would mean, if not these things.

Parecon and contemporary social movements

P.H.: Would you see Parecon as the answer to the question of what does the movement for an alternative globalization want?

M.A.: No, and also yes. That is, a movement against corporate globalization is almost by definition for internationalism, which means it is for some kind of equitable and solidaritious approach to trade and exchange among people internationally. Thus it would be against the IMF and World Bank and other institutions that seek to maintain or worsen the bias of international exchange toward enriching the already rich and impoverishing the already poor, but it would be for new international relations that would instead narrow the gap between rich and poor.

The thing is, no such approach can persist on top of each nation being capitalist in its domestic economic organization. So what I think is that while there are a great many very desirable steps that can be taken to move us away from the most egregious types of corporate globalization even before domestic economies are revolutionized away from capitalism, still, that domestic step is in the end essential, and yes, I think parecon provides answers regarding that step.

I also think that the values and norms of parecon, and its insights about social relations including markets, etc., can greatly assist people conceiving demands for immediate improvements in global relations. I have written some about that myself, indeed, and of course many others have, too.

P.H.: How has Parecon related so far to the World Social Forum process? There have been recent attempts to unite the organizations participating in the forum under a common political platform, like the Bamako Appeal. Is Parecon complementary to these prospects?

M.A.: I and others have participated regularly in the forums. I don’t know, however, what I think about the efforts you mention. On the one hand, I am not sure that the WSF constituency is the right one to try to galvanize into a new more programmatic organization and project. The wide array of people who relate to the WSF may be too politically diverse, on the one hand, including, for example, elements that aren’t anticapitalist, and perhaps also too separate from typical and important sectors of people in countries around the world, on the other hand.

It may be, in other words, that trying to get a degree of organizational unity out of the WSF constituencies would entail too many compromises of important commitments–as but one example, dispensing with overt anticapitalism to keep some groups involved. Or it could be that it would entail adopting some views that would distance the project from poorer elements worldwide, say. I just don’t know. Creating new organizations with activist agendas is certainly worth trying–and we certainly need something new internationally and in the U.S. too, even more so, for that matter. And of course trying out ideas is the way we find out whether they can work or not.

As to parecon and these efforts, well, yes, I do think that if it is to matter much over the long haul, any new international or domestic truly left organization needs to be anticapitalist. More, I think it can’t just say that capitalism sucks. Rather, if it wants to be convincing and to have its efforts accord with its aims, it has to be able to not only detail why capitalism sucks but, even more important, describe an economic alternative that would instead be highly desirable. That’s what I think parecon provides so that, yes, I do think parecon is not only complimentary with projects to create new domestic or international movements or organizations of the Left, but perhaps also essential to that effort. I guess time will tell if parecon’s advocates are right about that.
Existing participatory experiments
P.H.: Do you consider some existing political experiments, like participatory budgeting, as partial realizations of Parecon?

M.A.: They are projects that incorporate elements of pareconish structure and values, yes, and so yes, in that sense they are partial realizations of parecon–and there are many. The budgeting that you mention is one such experiment–though it doesn’t yet see itself as related to parecon, as far as I am aware of, at least. Actual workplaces that incorporate pareconish structures such as balanced job complexes are another such experiment, and there are now quite a few of those in various parts of the world, too. But I should say that I don’t think social change is a matter of only setting up such experiments and projects, as important as I think those efforts are. I also think it is essential to fight for a great many kinds of short and medium term gains, to better people’s lives now and to travel a path that leads toward parecon not in a few isolated projects, but throughout economies.

For example, to create a pareconish workplace is good. Doing so can inspire and instruct by example and by lessons, as well as benefit those involved. Doing so begins to plant the seeds of the future in the present. Likewise, to create an experiment in budgetary planning that has some elements of pareconish values and practices is also good, of course. But to create workers councils in large capitalist firms, and consumer councils in neighbourhoods and regions–in part inspired and guided by the other projects and giving them their reason for being—and to then fight and win innovations moving populations and structures toward pareconish commitments, will be even better. One can imagine all kinds of gains such movements can win–redistributive taxes, higher wages, changes in property laws, changes in the division of labor, a shorter work week, and so on.

The point is, with a pareconish commitment, both efforts to organize future-oriented small projects or experiments or workplaces, etc., and also wider movement efforts to win gains in the present would be informed by and would seek to enhance and enlarge support for visionary and strategic commitment to balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, council-based self-management, and participatory planning.

P.H.: How do you explain the fact that these participatory experiments are springing up within the framework of existing capitalist relations?

M.A.: Well, where else would they spring up? I mean that seriously. It occurs more aggressively where a state is fostering the projects, whether in local venues like for the participatory budgets in Brazil and now some other places too, or even in a whole country as with the many experiments and projects under way in Venezuela, but in any event what we have in the world is overwhelmingly capitalism. So, anticapitalists–or even just people trying to improve their lives or enlarge justice without ideological comittments–can be expected to try to carve out space or win gains where they are, which is inside capitalism–and so, as you say, that’s what we see. I don’t actually think there is anything to explain, unless I am missing something.

Further links:

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Simple autonomous initiatives such as the one highlighted by the following article in a small town paper are a way for local governments to open up the political process and increase direct and participatory democracy by inviting citizen engagement and involvement at the grassroots level. Widespread practices such as this would provide people with a voice and stimulate participation on a larger scale nationwide, especially if they were taken a step further by insituting participatory budgeting as well. - Editor

Germantown Welcomes Public Input

By Lyndee Kemmett, Special to the Freeman

Source: http://www.zwire.com/site/index.cfm?newsid=19350505&BRD=1769&PAG=461&dept_id=74969&rfi=8

GERMANTOWN - To encourage a dialogue between town officials and residents, Germantown officials will host a series of open meetings starting Thursday.

The Thursday session will be at 7 p.m. in the Town Hall on Palatine Park Road.

At a Town Board meeting last week, Supervisor Roy Brown called the forum an opportunity for residents to voice their views on any topic that concerns them.

"There is no agenda," he said. "It's just open to discuss whatever people have in mind."

One likely topic was raised at the board meeting by Kay Abraham, head of the town's Democratic Party, who urged the board to move forward in adopting the town's Comprehensive Plan.

The town recently created a rezoning committee that is expected to review the town's zoning ordinance - a recommendation of the draft Comprehensive Plan. Brown said the town is seeking guidance from experts at Pace University on both rezoning and adopting the Comprehensive Plan.

The rezoning committee will have its first meeting at 7 p.m. Monday.

  • Also at the board meeting last week:

  • It was announced that the town now has a completed draft of a new policy and procedures manual for the town Police Department.

  • Board members threw their support behind a plan by Caleb Fieser to clean up 18 miles of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. Fieser is planning to fund the project by holding a canoe race around Memorial Day weekend.

  • The board agreed to plant a tree and install a bench on town property in memory of resident Martha Lorenz van Allen.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


The following article comes from Democracy By The People contributor Jesse-Justin Cuevas, an american currently studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Here in this very interesting and insightful paper, written after her first hand experiences travelling and studying the process underway in Venezuela, she offers her reflections on participatory democracy in Venezuela and it's relation to the political philosophies of John Dewey, the American who is often considered the forefather of participatory politics in the United States, and the author's own re-examination of her relationship with her own government. The article is preceded by a summary by Cuevas. Click on the link at the end to read the article in full. - Editor

Introduction by the author:

Originating in the United States in the late 1800s, pragmatism sought to include in its philosophy many different modes of thinking and reasoning in the search for truth (with a lower case "t"). Pragmatist philosophy depends on science, experimentation, and tolerance in its rejection of realism, absolutism, and Cartesianism. Pragmatist thinkers--not to be confused with pragmatic thinkers--believe that all education comes from experience and all forms of truth result from differing experiences (because different, and even opposing, truths can, do, and ought to coexist). The philosophy's father figures, Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey, fervently believed in their philosophy and devoted their lives to it, founding schools (Dewey's New School in Manhattan and the University of Chicago Laboratory School) and writing massive texts exploring pragmatism's relationship with other worldly themes, such as religion and ethics. As we are all familiar with the Dewey Decimal library cataloguing system, John Dewey is a well-known name among our generation. His most famous works, however, focus on progressive and experimental education, and he is also well-known in the political and philosophical realms of academia as one of the forefathers of participatory politics.

This essay, "The Politics of Dewey and Chávez: Venezuela as Example or Evasion," attempts to reflect on an array Dewey's political and philosophical works about participatory democracy within the context of Chávez's envisioned 'participatory, democratic 21st century socialist' government. As I mention from the get-go of the essay, my three-week long trip to Venezuela was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring, and this piece is only an attempt to answer and sort through one of the many questions Venezuela and its people elicited in me. Stretching Dewey's blueprints for participatory democracy over the current Venezuelan presidential administration, I beg the fairly non-conclusive question, "Can participatory democracy be installed from the top-down?" I hope you enjoy the reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. - Jesse-Justin Cuevas

The Politics of Dewey and Chávez: Venezuela as Example or Evasion

By Jesse Justin Cuevas

Upon my return to New York from Venezuela, I sat down with my advisor, Lauren Kaminsky, to talk about my summer ventures. Because I am a striving activist for social justice, I think everyone was expecting me to return to the United States a full-blown Chavista1. For the first question Lauren asked me, jokingly of course, was, “So, have you gone over to the dark side?” Though I am certainly still a capitalist, my experience in Venezuela taught me more than I ever knew about the reality of my relationship with my government here in the United States.

In my conversation with Lauren, I told her about the communal councils in place in Venezuela, the rising voter turn-out, the laws surrounding referenda, and the life for the poor people living in the barrios of La Vega, Caracas. When I spoke to her about my amazement in the efficiency of participatory planning—a group in the community writes a request for something involving health, education, safety, etc., and Chávez allocates money accordingly—she said to me, “Well, Jesse, that’s pragmatism.” We both agreed that it is a shame that the alleged arch-nemesis of the United States, Venezuela, is putting into practice a wonderful American political philosophy that is hugely neglected by the American political system.

In the next several pages I hope to offer an account of successful participatory democracy (so far!) in a country where our own media fails to do so. The first portion consists of a brief summary of participatory democracy told through an array of Dewey’s works but mainly pulling from his response to Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion in The Public and Its Problems. The second portion applies Dewey’s theory of participatory democracy to Chávez’s presidency using mainly Dewey’s philosophy and the published works of Gregory Wilpert, a German-American sociologist, freelance writer, and internationally recognized analyst of Venezuelan politics. The question I ask—and cannot rightly answer—is the question that I struggled with throughout my travels in Venezuela and the question I still struggle with today. Can participatory democracy work in a top-down structured government? .... To read full article click HERE

Thursday, March 20, 2008


When gentrification efforts by real estate developers and specualtors threatened the integrity of a long standing Puerto Rican community in Chicago's Humboldt Park, The community organized against the threat using models of participatory democracy to develop and execute their struggle for self-preservation and self-determination. The following article and related links describe their efforts and the participatory philosophy and practices behind them. - Editor

Exercises in Self-Determination:The Humboldt Park Participatory Democracy Project

Michael Rodríguez Muñiz

Who should determine the future of a community? In our complex world, this seemingly simple question is rarely posed, and even more rarely answered. However rare, I believe that the overwhelming consensus, and the only ethical response, would be that a community should determine its future. But like all systems of oppression, the forces of colonialism and its urban overseer, gentrification– continue to contradict our ethical sensibilities.

In Chicago’s Humboldt Park/ West Town area, gentrification is threatening the future of the Puerto Rican community. Gentrification, a process of spatial de-concentration, destroys inner city communities (often of color) through various methods. Without so much as a vote or an opinion poll, developers and speculators are attempting to determine what is to become of Humboldt Park. Obsessed with the construction of luxurious condominiums, they have developed strategies to displace the long-time residents of area. As property taxes rise, so do rent costs, resulting in more and more families being economically forced out, against their will. Still more, gentrification does not end with displacement; it continues with the confiscation and subsequent obliteration of a community’s legacy.

The recent and repeated attempts to obstruct the oldest Puerto Rican mural in Chicago with a condominium, teaches us how this process destroys community symbols, public art, and popular culture. This lesson is driven home further with the example of Lincoln Park, which was once a vital Puerto Rican community but today has lost all vestiges of this history; ask anyone in Lincoln Park today about that fact and you will realize how gentrification erases history.

For over 40 years, Humboldt Park has been synonymous with Puerto Ricans. Here, like no other place in Chicago, this area has been the focal point of Puerto Rican activity– culturally, politically, and economically. In a sense, this area is akin to Boston’s Villa Victoria and New York City’s Spanish Harlem. Being one of the largest Puerto Rican communities outside of New York City, Humboldt Park boasts a long Puerto Rican history, including the yearly celebration of the Fiestas Patronales and Puerto Rican People’s Parade, which grew out of the 1966 and 1979 Division Street “riots” (rebellions). The most recent of these historic developments has been the establishment of Paseo Boricua and the movement to build a stable, viable, and autonomous Puerto Rican community.

“Paseo Boricua,” the term that affectionately refers to Division Street between California and Mozart, is marked by the two towering Puerto Rican flags erected in 1995.2 Vigilantly cognizant of the movement of gentrifying forces displacing Puerto Ricans from Wicker Park and most of West Town, community organizers established Paseo Boricua to be the anchor of the Puerto Rican community, el barrio boricua.

Along with the transformation of Division Street into a cultural-economic corridor, community efforts have resulted in the organization of a community-wide revitalization plan known as the Humboldt Park Empowerment Partnership (HPEP), as well as the formation of the Puerto Rican Agenda. In particular, the Puerto Rican Agenda, an ad-hoc committee made up of professionals, students, community activists, and local politicians, has worked tirelessly to help maintain and stabilize the Puerto Rican community.

Together, these organized bodies have developed numerous strategies; for example, several new programs seek to increase home ownership and affordable housing, while other programs address health and employment needs. This reclamation of space, both geographical and cultural, is all the more impressive when understood within the socio-economic context of this Puerto Rican community. As an internally colonized people, the Puerto Rican community suffers from astronomical dropout rates, high levels of drug and alcohol abuse, rampant gang violence, poverty and unemployment. Though the challenge is great, community efforts have made substantial inroads in addressing these needs and strengthening its economic infrastructure. Lamentably, however, gentrification is a persistent foe.

Armed to the teeth with outside financial and political force, gentrification has begun to displace many Humboldt Park residents. In actuality, Puerto Ricans, once the majority group, have suffered over the course of the last decade a significant population decline.3 Nevertheless, as history has proven, Puerto Ricans are determined to remain in Humboldt Park.

A new initiative of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC), a long time beacon of resistance, is focused on further engaging residents by posing the following question: who is to determine our fate in el barrio? The PRCC, espousing the concept of participatory democracy, believes that this question can only be answered and fulfilled by the collective participation of the community. Without increased participation in community development– gentrification will not be stopped.... To read full article click

See also:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


In advocating direct democracy we must question ourselves about our motives. Do we want to tilt the playing field in favor of progressives and keep the right wing fighting to take back its advantage? No, this would maintain the polarization that divides people and makes consensus impossible. Direct democracy is about giving more people a voice in the government, not about isolating people with different views. It is not about giving any one group advantage, but making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and contribute to the structures that govern. The debates regarding motives behind direct democracy should be further discussed and the article below raises some important questions for advocates to consider. The author sees a benefit in pushing the right wing out of politics in favor of a more progressive government and we must ask why. He points to the faults of the current administration and its own use of "democracy" as justification for invasion. But that certainly does not mean that direct democracy can suddenly sweep in to save the world from unjust intrusions. That suggestion would create the same sort of ideological imperialism that 'democracy' has come to mean for the right wing. Instead, direct democracy will have to build itself through the participation of diverse voices in order to avoid the forceful imposition of a new system that does not reflect the true sum of the public will. - Editor

How Progressives Can Utilize Direct Democracy As a Means to Create Change

Source: http://www.worldproutassembly.org/archives/2008/01/how_progressive.html

As we re-create our progressive gospel, we can reference our central themes within each line, leaving no doubt as to who benefits from the governmental system we envision. Through Direct Democracy, we can put our vision to work, sowing the seeds of an international movement which profits no one but those who are most in need of its prospects. More importantly, such work will have the effect of muting the endless struggle among progressives and instead, join our voices in a powerful harmonic convergence. - Larry Sakin

by Larry SakinJan 25, 2008

Progressives have a long history of 'eating our own.' It’s a tendency that the right wing very much enjoys watching.

There's a lot of despair and cynicism floating around these days, and it’s easy to point fingers and try to find ‘traitors’ among our ranks. If we really want to change the current course of our country, we can instead get active and working for change together, achieving a sustainable world while annoying the hell out of the right wing as a bonus.

One way to achieve our goals is through Direct Democracy. Once this system is implemented, debates can be hot and heavy, but there will be no future pumping up introverted groups by simple math and letting people indulge their dreams and proposals with little chance of getting into the mainstream. Cattle will always move to the greener grass and it is better for the American 'undecided' or 'open-minded' to grasp the principles and methods of Direct Democracy, rather than pick at the details.

Direct Democracy is a concept which unites all progressives and reformers. Even some true conservatives and grassroots Republicans can be drawn into this idea through national referenda and a new power line that eclipses the feeble and old fashioned politics of the mainstream.

We must search for ideas that have mass appeal (foreign policy, defense, prescription drugs, social security, balance of trade, and energy economics). We have to out think the government, and then make proposals entertaining and exciting. A movement for Direct Democracy has to be exciting, with new techniques, or it is doomed to fill a larger group of progressives with false hopes. Remember that the current politics of this country are vulnerable and boring as hell. Surely we can stop in-fighting and drive salience through!

I believe very much in John Quincy Adams’s quote, “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” Unfortunately, our current leaders believe their worldwide quest to instill capitalist principles instead of Direct Democracy has rendered Adams’s vision archaic.

In order to bring Direct Democracy to the world, we must start by analyzing the language of our current leadership, and the thin line between ambition for profit and true democratic values.

Those who proffer capitalist values often sound more democratic than they really are. They say they want to see that freedoms are extended to all people in all places. They say that all people have a right to the basic necessities required to lead dignified lives and to pursue happiness and that America’s security and prosperity rely on the security and prosperity of people throughout the world. By helping others, they contend, we will help ourselves.

While all of the above sounds good, the open-endedness of these paradigms begs the question “who really benefits from this ideology?”

As we’ve witnessed in the Iraq War, the Bush administration and the neo-conservative architects of the invasion have said that the main reason for the war is extricating Iraq’s people from the grip of dictatorship and allowing them to live freely. Yet, the actions of the administration and war supporters clearly paint a different picture, that of using the cause they speak so highly of to fill private coffers with public money.

Advocates of Direct Democracy need to be clear in their language if they wish to distinguish their values from the deceptive blandishments of the right wing. To do this, we can pare our beliefs back to the central tenets of the left:

“Redistribution of wealth, elimination of poverty everywhere, unlimited expenditures to provide affordable or free medical care for everyone, curbs on destructive overpopulation, protection of the environment of the earth, universal freedom of expression, the spread of democratic institutions, elimination of all totalitarian regimes of any kind, and the conversion of the U.S.A. today from the present oligarchy run by an aristocracy bent on self-protected wealth and power to a genuine democracy.” ~Wolfe, 2006

With the exception of the last, these theories carried our nation through many desperate times, from the depression and the world war that followed, through the McCarthy era of the fifties, and the Vietnam conflict of the sixties. As we re-create our progressive gospel, we can reference our central themes within each line, leaving no doubt as to who benefits from the governmental system we envision.

Through Direct Democracy, we can put our vision to work, sowing the seeds of an international movement which profits no one but those who are most in need of its prospects. More importantly, such work will have the effect of muting the endless struggle among progressives and instead, join our voices in a powerful harmonic convergence.

If, on the other hand, we abandon our core beliefs and allow our democratic message agree with those of Bush and his cohorts, “spreading democracy throughout the world, even if it has to be done at gun point,” our values will be lost. Unless they mean to harm the US, let sovereign nations govern the way they want to govern. We’ve neither the resources in troops nor money to help overthrow all tyrannical governments.

That may sound cold, but it’s a fact.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Barack Obama's platform contains many proposals for initiatives in participatory democracy geared toward more transparency in Washington and more citizen participation, many of which would utilize the internet to engage people through e-Democracy. These proposals are laid out in detail on his website primarily under the Ethics section of his platform.To visit that site click HERE. See also our previous related post on this topic HERE. The following e-Week article dating from the time Obama revealed his technology agenda highlights his proposals and the impact they could have on the advancement of particpatory democracy in this country.
- Editor

Barack Obama: Refining Tech Policy

By Roy Mark 2007-11-16

Citizen democracy, privacy and free speech in technology take the stage as Obama's IT platform takes shape.

On an issue where theres little disagreement between the candidates, Sen. Barack Obama moved Nov. 14 to differentiate himself from the Democratic pack with a detailed technology agenda.

While Obamas overall tech policy tracks with the plans from the other candidates—support for
network neutrality, increased H-1B visas and jacked up spending and investment on math, science and technology—the Illinois Democrat uses his ambitious agenda to detail his broader view on citizen democracy, privacy and free speech.

Network neutrality, for instance, is more than a rate dispute between broadband and content providers, according to Obama. Without network neutrality rules or laws, he contends, the "quality of speech through which the Internet has begun to transform American political and cultural discourse" would be threatened.

At a campaign stop at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., Nov. 14, Obama said, "I will take a backseat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality." In his tech agenda released the same day, he added that network neutrality would "ensure that [the Internet] remains a platform for free speech and innovation that will benefit consumers and our democracy."

With the usual obligatory nod to training more Americans for high-tech jobs, Obamas tech immigration position moves beyond his fellow candidates promising more H-1B visas. Under an Obama administration, he says, all immigrants who earn their college degrees in the United States will be given a path to citizenship.

"We should examine our ability to increase the number of permanent visas we issue to foreign skilled workers," Obama states in his agenda. "We do not want to shut our doors to innovators overseas, who have traditionally made America strong."

On the Internet issues of free speech and participatory democracy, Obama steps ahead of other Democratic contenders for the White House in promoting specific ideas and proposals.

"[Obama] believes that openness of the new media world should be seen as an opportunity as much as some see it as a threat," his policy paper states. He "does not view regulation as the answer to these concerns."

Instead of the host of laws—most ultimately rejected by the courts—introduced over the last decade by both Democrats and Republicans to protect children online, Obama said parents should be provided filtering tools, including requiring content providers to offer parental controls software that not only blocks objectionable material but also prevents children from revealing personal information.

"Private entities like Common Sense Media are pursuing a sanity not censorship approach, which can serve as a model for how to use technology to empower parents without offending the First Amendment," the paper states.

Obama also proposes the creation of "Public Media 2.0" as the next generation of public media that will "create the Sesame Street of the digital age and other video and interactive programming." He said he would support funding for moving existing public broadcasting stations online to help "renew their founding visions in the digital world."

But nowhere in his tech policy agenda is Obama more impassioned on his view of 21st century technology as he is about government and the Internet.

"Together, we could open up government and invite citizens in, while connecting all of America to 21st century broadband," Obama said at his Google campaign stop. "We could use technology to help achieve universal health care, to reach for a clean energy future and to ensure that young Americans can compete—and win—in the global economy."

In Obamas view of his potential presidency, Americans would be able to watch a live Internet feed of all government proceedings, from agency meetings to congressional hearings. He would give people an opportunity to review and comment on White House Web site for five days before signing any non-emergency legislation.

In addition, he would create a government Web site and search engine to allow users to track online federal grants, contracts, earmarks and lobbyist contacts with government officials.

Overseeing it all would be the nations first chief technology officer. The federal CTO would have the authority to ensure government agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services to solicit and receive information from citizens. The CTO would also oversee a national, interoperable wireless network for first responders.

"This policy will enable Americans to discuss and debate more actively they key issues that affect our lives and will give citizens greater autonomy to determine where the truth lies," Obamas agenda states.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Photo: Transition Town Public Meeting

The following article discusses the transition town movement in the UK which uses the participatory model to address the pressing evironmental and energy issues that will shape the future of towns and communities and affect their viability and habitability in the near future. By seeking citizen participation in major decision making on such important issues and the design of measures that will be taken to address them, people are not only able to have their voices heard, they are also instilled with a heightened sense of responsibilty for their communities, and a greater level of political participation on all issues. These experiments in the UK could easily, and should be replicated here in the U.S.A. - Editor

Voices of Descent


Addressing climate cange can seem a colossal task. Melanie Jarman reports on the emerging ‘transition town’ movement, which is encouraging citizens’ participation in long-term planning to change energy use at a local level.

Under the catchy title of Transition Town Totnes, the south Devon town is the first in the UK to explore what it means to undergo the transition to a carbon-constrained, energy-lean world at a local level. By consciously planning and designing for changes on the horizon, rather than reacting to resource shortages as they are thrust upon them, the participants hope that their town will become more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than the present.The seeds of the transition town idea lie in the small Irish town of Kinsale, where in 2005 a group of students at the local further education college developed a process for residents to draw up an ‘energy descent action plan’ - a tool to design a positive timetabled way through the huge changes that will occur as world oil production peaks. The action plan covers a number of areas of life in Kinsale, including food, energy, tourism, education and health.

For example, for food, the plan envisions that by 2021 the town will have made the transition from dependency to self-reliance, where ‘all landscaping in the town comprises of edible plants, fruit trees line the streets, all parks and greens have become food forests and community gardens’. As a practical step towards this, the plan recommends the immediate appointment of a local food officer.

For housing, the plan envisions that by 2021 ‘all new buildings in Kinsale will include such things as a high level of energy efficiency together with a high portion of local sustainable materials’. A suggested immediate practical step towards this is a review of current building practices and future development plans.

The energy descent action plan approach landed in the UK when a Kinsale college tutor, Rob Hopkins, moved to Totnes and held a number of talks and film screenings to introduce the idea. In September 2006 Transition Town Totnes was launched, seeking ‘to engage all sectors of the community in addressing this, the great transition of our time’ and seeking to put ‘Totnes on the international map as a community that engaged its creativity and collective genius with this timely and pressing issue’. The initiative has spread beyond Totnes just one year on; towns and villages around the UK have started developing a transition town approach for themselves.

One reason why the initiative has caught people’s imaginations is that, at its core, is a hopeful message. Many ‘transitioners’ are motivated to change energy use patterns not just because of energy shortages in the future but because of self-imposed energy rationing now - because cutting fossil fuel use is essential if climate change is to be lessened.

The transition movement shakes off the usual gloom and limitation around this message by calling for positive and pro-active changes. These are based in how the world actually is, rather than how we would like it to be if only someone, somewhere, would come up with that miraculous solution that will allow us to expand infinitely and indefinitely, all within a finite world. Rather than a vision of deferred promise and baseless hope it offers community-wide participation to find realistic and workable answers.

Whether the transition town approach can work at a citywide level, or whether its call for reduced consumption will have a wider impact on, for example, international trading systems and their inherently heavy use of fossil fuels, remains to be seen. In Totnes, at least, the creation of new businesses and land use initiatives suggests that the transitioners are in it for the long haul.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


“People are dropping out of democracy. That's a very dangerous trend. The voting level is going down. But even more than that, you have people say, "I'm not turned on to politics." Well, history shows that if you're not turned on to politics, politics is going to turn on you. And the political system, under the corporate domination, is closing out the civil society. Citizen groups can't get anything done anymore. It's very hard to get a chance to have a chance in Congress before the regulatory agencies or the courts. It's like a permanent government in Washington.” Ralph Nader http://www.ontheissues.org/Ralph_Nader.htm

“I mean, first of all, if [the Democratic presidential candidates] wanted to [end the influence of special interests] they'd put front and center public funding of public campaigns. They put front and center cracking down on corporate crime fraud and abuse. They would put front and center empowering the American people in direct democracy format so they can move in when they're so-called representatives cave in to the interests of big business.” Ralph Nader http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0802/25/ltm.03.html

While Nader refers to our need for direct democracy in the US, some see it as an advancement of his personal political agenda. For example, the article "Democracy? Count Me Out" by Stephen Gowans argues that Nader and other politicians just want to change the rules when they are losing in order to slant the playing field in their favor. According to Gowans, this explains Nader’s attempt to give the people more power while he is actually hoping to give “enlightened” people more power. Citing Richard Swift’s work as an example, Gowans goes on to argue that people who advocate direct democracy might be surprised by the effects of expanding democracy’s scope, such as a majority that disagrees with their own political initiatives. Taking this perspective, both the ‘non-authoritarian’ Left and the right-wing policy makers in Washington nowadays are equally “happy to exploit the rhetoric of democracy, as a useful way to distinguish themselves favourably from authoritarian regimes”. While equating these two extremes is a bit of an exaggeration, Gowans does have a point about the type of rhetoric being used in politics today.

However, if we step back from the debate about presidential candidates to see what citizens are saying about direct democracy, a different thesis appears. In a recent online debate which included several particpants of the Worldwide Direct Democracy Movement (WDDM), it became apparent that in order to effectively advocate true direct democracy, we cannot be satisfied with mere stopgap participatory responses to problems that can only be addressed through a new system of comprehensive and total participation. Instead of altering the playing field slightly to make it more favorable for one team or the other, or even in favor of the referee, we should be pushing for a new field all together on which we are all players and referees. - Editor

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Empowered Participation is the compelling chronicle of this unprecedented transformation. It is the first comprehensive empirical analysis of the ways in which participatory democracy can be used to effect social change. Using city-wide data and six neighborhood case studies, the book explores how determined Chicago residents, police officers, teachers, and community groups worked to banish crime and transform a failing city school system into a model for educational reform.

The author's conclusion: Properly designed and implemented institutions of participatory democratic governance can spark citizen involvement that in turn generates innovative problem-solving and public action. Their participation makes organizations more fair and effective.

Though the book focuses on Chicago's municipal agencies, its lessons are applicable to many American cities. Its findings will prove useful not only in the fields of education and law enforcement, but also to sectors as diverse as environmental regulation, social service provision, and workforce development.

Archon Fung is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is the author, with Erik Olin Wright, of "Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance".

For more on this publication visit the following link:

Source: http://www.everydaycitizen.com/2007/04/empowered_participation_by_arc.html

Saturday, March 8, 2008


This letter to the editor of KC Community News argues that the caucus was an act of participatory democracy. Pointing out that people came in order to discuss and debate the cadidates, the author says he felt restored faith in "the system". But this is the same system that asks us to vote and be silent, not to influence and make changes as we should. This was a single instance where people showed up and felt like they made a difference, but in order for us to have a direct influence on politics this instance must occur much more frequently than once every four years. -Editor

Democratic Caucus was First-hand Democracy

Letter to the Editor, Wednesday, February 13, 2008 4:19 AM CST

Dear editor,I would like to thank the over 500 Democrats who braved the weather Tuesday (Feb. 5) evening to participate in the presidential preference caucus in Paola. Most attendees had never attended a caucus and were unfamiliar with the process and their actual purpose for being there. While millions of Americans watched the process from home or simply voted and waited, these Kansas Democrats invested three hours of their time to enjoy participatory democracy at its best.

In addition to the organized chaos, there were political conversations among fellow Democrats. There were speeches on behalf of presidential candidates. There were groups trying to persuade other groups to join them. It was an enjoyable and educational political event.

The 12th Senate District Democrats were only one of three caucuses in the state to give a majority of elected delegates to Hillary Clinton. Clinton won six delegates and Barack Obama won five delegates at the caucus in Paola.

I have heard dire calls for a primary because of the perceived difficulties with the caucus system, and to be sure, the system can be improved. But I believe we need more events like the caucuses, not fewer. Voters have become disconnected from the political process. Voter turnout is dismally low. Even those who do vote have a cynical eye turned toward the political process. Political discourse amounts to this media pundit versus that media pundit.

Kansas Democrats in particular feel a sense of isolation. So many people attended the caucuses because we are hungry for change. The caucuses provided an opportunity for one-on-one political discourse and camaraderie among Democrats that seldom exists elsewhere.

During the course of the evening, 22 people from this area, who in many cases never had been actively involved in politics before, placed their names in nomination for delegate and alternate spots to the congressional district convention, the next step in selecting delegates to the Democratic National Convention. They gave their first political speeches, asking participants to vote for them, and they won their first election. For some, this could be the beginning of a lifetime of political activism.No, it wasn’t always neat and clean. It was participatory democracy at its best. We lost some of our cynicism and renewed some of our faith in the system.

Doug Walker,Osawatomie,chairman of the 12th District Democratic caucus


The Commons, the State and Transformative Politics

Source: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/article768.html

Hilary Wainwright examines how new technology and new forms of organisation are coming together to transform the left and labour movements, political representation and democracy

The resistance to the G8 in Rostok in June this year had a particularly varied and energetic character. A massive international demonstration converging from all quarters of the town. Camps, communal kitchens and alternative forums. Clowns and samba bands. Confrontations with the police. A disciplined and imaginative non-violent disruption of the summit, which even the Financial Times judged to have been successful.

Among those taking part were a group of around thirty activist intellectuals from Europe, Latin America and North America who met Berlin in the spacious rooms of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation near some well-graffiti’d stumps of the Wall. It was the fourth seminar of the ‘Networked Politics’ series, an international inquiry into ‘rethinking political organisation in an era of movements and networks’.... To read full article click HERE

Thursday, March 6, 2008


The following article provides a good overview of participatory budgeting efforts around the world. In many cases, participatory budgeting has arisen from popular initiatives at the local level. this should be considered as a means to achieve better appropriation of public funds according to the will of the people here in the U.S.A. as well. It's success in other western countries indicates that it could be as effective here, and we should push our local governments to adopt such a budgeting system as another building block in the in the struggle for a more direct and participatory democracy in the U.S. - Editor

Participatory Budget: People’s Decision at the ‘Core’ of Power

By Giovanni Allegretti

At its most basic, Participatory Budgets refer to turning over budgetary decisions to the citizens impacted by the budget, creating public arenas in which citizens can discuss and hierarchise the overall priorities of the city (rare) or choose some new investments affecting a (more or less) huge percentage of municipal budget. Participatory budgets, however, can only have a future if they move beyond a ‘minimalist’ formal definition and are able to face mid-long term challenges, says Giovanni Allegretti.

The so-called ‘Participatory Budget’ (PB), now experimented in over 80 cities in Europe (and recently in Canada) is one of the possible answers to the growing sense of political discontent that struck western democracies since the early 1990s, and whose symptoms include falling electoral turnouts, declining party membership numbers and increased estrangement between politicians and citizens.

While the prevalence of a neo-liberal ideology has seen increased emphasis on privatisation, deregulation and market forces, some local governments (considering their duty that of being the privileged space for ‘experimenting’ new paths) have tried to respond to citizens’ demands, the pressures of competition and the need to bureaucratic reform, by increasing citizen participation in government.

An attempt of definition

Defining PB is not a simple task, due to the existence of different families of experiments that are complicating and enriching the most famous source of inspiration: the experience of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, which in 1989 improved and extended to a metropolis scale some ‘attempts’ done in other small brazilian cities along the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

At its most basic, Participatory Budgets refer to turning over budgetary decisions to the citizens impacted by the budget, creating public arenas in which citizens can discuss and hierarchise the overall priorities of the city (rare) or choose some new investments affecting a (more or less) huge percentage of municipal budget. So, PB consists of a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary city residents (not necessarily pre-organised in associations) decide how to allocate part of a public budget through a series of face-to-face meetings, as local assemblies, workshops, planning tables and a broad-range of other events. In some experiences, ‘cold’ decision making tools (using IT, or referenda) are also provided, in order to amplify the impact on the population not regularly participating: but they have failed when they’ve been given to much ‘centrality’. In fact, the first meaning of PB is the chance to ‘fuel’ debate and deliberation procedures among citizens, stimulating them to exchange their opinions throughout open confrontations, where they could listen to and adopt different points of view from their original ones.

Participatory Budgets are generally characterized by several common features: along an annual pre-defined ‘cycle’ of events, community members identify spending priorities and elect budget delegates to represent their neighbourhoods (especially in big cities, where a direct relationship between assemblies and politicians is not enough to deepen discussed issues, due to the high numbers of participants), then budget delegates transform community priorities into concrete project proposals, public employees facilitate and provide technical assistance (evaluating the feasibility of proposed projects), community members vote on which projects to fund, and the public authority formally approves and implements the projects (so transforming a consultation tool into a deliberating one).

It is according to this ‘inclusive’ definition that participatory budgets have spread to hundreds of Latin American cities, and are being conceived in some ‘experiments’ in Asia and Africa. In the western context, the first examples in the beginning of the XXI century showed the need to broaden the definition itself, as they ‘shrank’ those principles’ implementation to ‘limited test-examples’ involving district or thematic budgets (like school or housing project budgets), but also merging them with other participatory processes dealing with strategic and mid-term planning or the budgets of cooperatives and non-profit organizations.

Regional differences in European PBs

These difficulties in defining PB’s features clearly reveal its ‘incremental’ and ‘adaptive’ nature, which till now granted the success of local experiences in very different places, often leading (as various studies have suggested) to more equitable public spending, higher quality of life, increased satisfaction of basic needs, greater government transparency and accountability, increased levels of public participation (especially by marginalized residents), and democratic and citizenship learning.

Now that the idea of popular participation in running local budgets has spread rapidly across Europe, with a fast mushrooming of new experiences every year that sum to the almost 1000 around the world , is it already possible to identify common features and trends in European PB that differentiate them from the Southern world ones?

Undoubtedly, anyone observing participatory budgets in Europe is confronted with a complex picture, with significant differences between political contexts and participatory models. Can one really speak of a single phenomenon, or do the various participatory budgets reflect different processes, despite the common name? Is this a process that can transform political and administrative practices, or are the effects in fact marginal? Can participative democracy lead to a re-legitimising of political systems and to improvements in the structures of local administrations? Can it bring a ‘re-democratisation of democracy’ and more social justice, as in Porto Alegre or in some other southern-american cases? Is this an alternative tendency to the neo-liberal mainstream or, on the contrary, does it only represent a compensatory dimension of an increasing neoliberal globalisation?

No common answers are possible to these ‘core’ questions. First of all because the European PBs are still young: the oldest among them are the ones of the ‘first German generation’ (1999-2000), and some Spanish cases (like Cordoba, in 2001), but the overall majority started between 2003 and 2004, so that is still not possible to ‘evaluate’ mid-term effects and structural impact on cities. But there is also a reason linked to the lack of evaluational studies. Universities seem to have discovered PBs only in the last year, and local authorities had a limited strength and preferred concentrating their energies in ‘experimenting’ than in funding researches that could monitor or analyse PB effects. Maybe there was also a ‘fear’ that paralysed politicians from committing themselves in cost-benefit analysis of their PB attempt: in fact, Latin American experiences show that costs are clear and visible (in terms of organisation, informational materials’ production, energy and time demanded to citizens and the public machine structure) while benefits can only be appreciated in a long term perspective. In fact, how can the effects of having more redistributive policies on the city, of educating citizens to a more active behaviour, centred in solidarity and civic engagement be ‘quantified’?

The case of Seville, the biggest European city that has adopted PB (700.000 inhabitants), is indicative. Seville has funded local universities to continuously monitor the experience, and that’s why they organised the most interesting children-PB aiming at educating new generations to a critical approach to urban politics. Since its beginning in 2004, Seville’s PB was based on an incremental and experimental approach, that – starting from the strong commitment of the Izquierda Unida party members in the Municipal Council - has ‘demonstrated’ positive effects on the city and on the citizenry. These positive effects have been so convincing that other sceptical coalition parties have agreed to gradually amplify the ‘pot’ of public funds devolved to citizens decisions, that now represents around 25% of the not-rigid expenses for investments. But such an approach (that we can call research_action) is still not common. In the majority of EU cities, in fact, PB is still conceived as a tool to revise small public expenses and neighbourhood priorities.

With this point of view, it is quite ‘natural’ that PBs discuss only small amounts of resources or marginal subjects, like street paving, neighbourhood gardens, traffic-light and similar issues, and that they doesn’t go any further. If citizens are treated as ‘subjects incapable of strategic thinking’, they usually continue to conceive themselves like narrow-minded actors, and they find ‘natural’ that the elected politicians keep the ‘structural core’ of budget in their hands, once they are the ones named for granting solidarity, equitable distribution of resources and mid/long term planning…

In some ways, in order to have more efficacious PBs, a radical shift is needed in the western world. It consists in rescuing the “faith in social intelligence”, believing that people can go beyond local egoism and self-centred need. The recent comparative research (the first and most serious in Europe) coordinated by the Marc Bloch Centre from Berlin, clearly points on that.

What next?

If a clear and common output could be taken from Latin American experiences is that: despite the different practical results of PBs, politicians had to admit that the scepticism and mistrust they have in citizens when they started the process, was completely wrong.

As Rebecca Abers wrote , a “negotiated solidarity” can be reached and induced, if PB is conceived primarily as a mean of endogenous education, rather than a mere tool for urban management or governance.

As the Marc Bloch study shows, something in Europe is slightly changing in that direction. For example, some Spanish cities have created “social criteria” to reward with higher scores the citizens-chosen priorities that benefit weakest social groups, others concentrate investments in ‘travel caravans’, bringing people around the city territory to discuss on-spot about priorities, so that they could acquire new perspectives and a concrete approach to city planning. Others, like Grottammare in Italy, have started to involve citizens also in decisions about public-private partnerships. Believing that ‘common goods’ and ‘public interests’ are not limited to public-funded investments, and that the risk of limiting PB discussion to the increasingly reducing ‘public pot’ of resources is to discuss nothing more than public-debt or very stiff-minimal investments in a few years time.

PB can only have a future if it moves beyond a ‘minimalist’ formal definition and is able to face mid-long term challenges.

In the end, PB is not a model or a simple tool for management. Its Latin American multifaced version shows that it is rather a ‘set of principles’ that could and has to be applied (with different and contextualised methods) to ambitious aims.

We need to revert the typical marxist-leninist or maoist condemnations of PB as a ‘bourgeois tool’. Yes, PB can endorse a ‘reformist’ approach (in the meaning of being gradual and incremental) but it needs to encompass a ‘revolutionary’ horizon in order not to ‘shrink’ to a simple bureaucratic and paternalistic new instrument of the ‘mainstream’.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Nader's "Democracy Toolbox" which elaborates upon his goals for altering the US political system to ensure the empowerment of citizens, informs readers of his stance on the people's role in democracy. Striving to take power out the hands of corporations with the intention of handing it to the people, Nader pushes for better education of the populace in the contemporary context of a dominating elite in the government. Similarly to Obama's initiatives to increase the use of technology to strengthen the participation of citizens as well as the quality and amount of imformation coming from the government (as discussed in a previous post on this blog click here to view), Nader too wants to provide more transparency in this effort to give citizens access to previously hoarded information. In this proposition Nader reveals a distinction between ownership and control. While the people supposedly own public lands, pension funds, savings accounts, and the public airwaves, Nader proposes that we also control these public assets. The tools he proposes are "universally accessible, can reduce government and other deficits, and are voluntary to use or band together around." He goes on to note that, "it matters not whether people are Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. It matters only that Americans desire to secure and use these facilities or tools." In this contentious race for the presidency, it is imperative to understand how each candidate plans to give the people more power so that we may participate in this democracy. -Editor


[For several years, Ralph Nader has been advocating a series of changes intended to strengthen our democracy. February 1, 1992, Nader presented "The Concord Principles: An Agenda for a New Initiatory Democracy." This week and next, we offer you the Concord Principles, with commentary.]

WHEREAS, a selfish oligarchy has produced economic decline, the debasement of politics, and the exclusion of citizens from the strengthening of their democracy and political economy;

WHEREAS, this rule of the self-serving few over the nation's business and politics has concentrated power, money, greed, and corruption far beyond the control or accountability of citizens;

WHEREAS, the political system, regardless of party, has degenerated into a government of the power brokers, by the power brokers, and for the power brokers that is an arrogant and distant caricature of Jeffersonian democracy;

WHEREAS, Presidential campaigns have become narrow, shallow, redundant, and frantic parades and horse races which candidates, their monetary backers, and their handlers control unilaterally, with the citizenry expected to be the bystanders and compliant voters;

WHEREAS, a pervading sense of powerlessness, denial, and revulsion is sweeping the nation's citizens as they endure or suffer from growing inequities, injustice, and loss of control over their future and the future of their children; and

WHEREAS, we, the citizens of the United States, who are dedicated to the reassertion of fundamental democratic principles and their application to the practical, daily events in our nation, are committed to beginning the work of shaping the substance of Presidential campaigns and of engaging the candidates' attention to our citizen agenda during this 1992 election year;

NOW, THEREFORE, WE HEREBY present the ensuing Concord Principles:

FIRST, democracy is more than a bundle of rights on paper; democracy must also embrace usable facilities that empower all citizens
(a) to obtain timely, accurate information from their government;
(b) to communicate such information and their judgments to one another through modern technology; and:
(c) to band together in civic associations as voters, taxpayers, consumers, workers, shareholders, students and as whole human beings in pursuit of a prosperous, just and free society.

SECOND, the separation of OWNERSHIP of major societal assets from their CONTROL permits the concentration of power over such assets in the hands of the few who control rather than in the hands of the many who own. The owners of the public lands, pension funds, savings accounts, and the public airwaves are the American people, who have essentially little or no control over their pooled assets or their commonwealth.
The American people should assume reasonable control over the assets they have legally owned for many years so that their use reflects citizen priorities for a prosperous America, mindful of the needs and rights of present and future generations of Americans to pursue happiness within benign environments.

THIRD, a growing and grave imbalance between the often converging power of Big Business, Big Government and the citizens of this country has seriously damaged our democracy and weakened our ability to correct this imbalance. We lack the mechanisms of civic power. We need a modern toolbox for redeeming our democracy by strengthening our capacity for self-government and self-reliance both as individuals and as a community of citizens. Our 18th century democratic rights need retooling for the proper exercise of our responsibilities as citizens in the 21st century.

FOURTH, the new democracy toolbox contains measures for protecting voters from having their voting powers diluted, over-run or nullified. These measures are:
(a) a binding none-of-the-above opinion on the ballot. [If "none of the above" received the largest number of votes, this would trigger a new election.]
(b) term limitations, 12 years and out;
(c) public financing of campaigns through well-promoted voluntary taxpayer checkoffs on tax returns;
(d) easier voter registration and ballot access rules; [Congress has since passed the so-called "motor voter" law to make voter registration simpler and easier, but the bill has not yet come out of conference committee, so the exact provisions remain unknown.]
(e) state-level binding initiative, referendum, and recall authority, and a non-binding national referendum procedure. ["Initiative" gives citizens the right to propose legislation for consideration by the voters, not waiting for a legislator to propose it; "referendum" allows citizens to vote laws into effect themselves, circumventing legislatures; "recall" allows citizens to un-elect particular elected officials.] And:
(f) a repeal of the runaway White House/Congressional pay raises back to 1988 levels.

FIFTH, the new democracy toolbox strengthens taxpayers who wish to have a say in how their tax dollars are being used and how their taxpayer assets are being protected. These objectives will be advanced by according taxpayers full legal standing to challenge the waste, fraud and abuse of tax monies and taxpayer assets. Presently, the federal judiciary places nearly insurmountable obstacles in front of taxpayers, thereby leaving the task to the unlikely prospect of government officials taking their own government to court.
Further, a facility for taxpayers banding together can be established by a simple taxpayer checkoff on the 1040 tax return, inviting taxpayers to join their national taxpayers association which would be accountable to members on a one-member one-vote standard.
Finally, obscure, overly complex, mystifying jargon pervading federal tax, pension, election and other laws and procedures is a barrier to taxpayer-citizen participation. The language of these laws and procedures must be simplified and clarified as a matter of national priority; otherwise, only special interests hiring decoders will be able to participate while the general public is shut out.

SIXTH, the new democracy toolbox strengthens consumers of both business and government services by according them:
(a) computerized access in libraries and their own homes to a full range of government information for which they have already paid but are now unable to obtain, either inexpensively or at all;
(b) facilities in the form of periodic inserts, included in the billing or other envelopes sent to them by companies that are either legal monopolies (for example, electric, gas, telephone bills) or are subsidized or subsidizable by the taxpayers (for example, banks and savings and loans). These inserts invite consumers to join their own state-wide consumer action groups to act as a watchdog, to negotiate and to advocate for their interests. A model of this facility is the Illinois Citizen Utility Board which has saved ratepayers over $3 billion since 1983 and filled the consumer chair before utility commissions, legislative hearings, and courtroom proceedings on many occasions. This type of facility costs taxpayers nothing, costs the carrying companies or government mailings nothing (the consumer group pays for the insert and there is no extra postage) and is voluntary for consumers to join. Had there been such bank consumer associations with full-time staff in the 1970s, there would not have been a trillion dollar bailout on the taxpayers' back for the S&L and commercial bank crimes, speculations, and mismanagement debacle. These would have been dipped in the bud at the community level by informed, organized consumer judgment. So too would have costly and hazardous energy projects been replaced by energy efficiency and renewable power systems; and
(c) Citizen consumers are the viewers and listeners of television and radio. Federal law says that the public owns the public airwaves which are now leased for free by the Federal Communications Commission to television and radio companies. The public, whose only option is to switch dials or turn off, deserves its own Audience Network.
The Audience Network would enhance the communication and mobilization process between people locally and nationally. The owners of the airwaves deserve a return of their property for one hour prime time and drive time on all licensed stations so that their professional studios, producers, and reporters can program what the audience believes is important to them and their children. The proposal for Audience Network, funded by dues from the audience-members and other NON-tax revenues, was the subject of a Congressional hearing in 1991, chaired by Congressman Edward Markey.
Similarly, in return for cable company monopoly and other powers, cable subscribers should be able to join their own cable viewers group through a periodic insert in their monthly cable billing envelopes. Modern electronic communications can play a critical role in anticipating and resolving costly national problems when their owners gain regular usage, as a community intelligence, to inform, alert, and mobilize democratic citizen initiatives. Presently, these electronic broadcasting systems are overwhelmingly used for entertainment, advertising and redundant news, certainly not a fair reflection of what a serious society needs to communicate in a complex age, locally, nationally, and globally.
(d) Access to justice --to the courts, to government agencies, and to legislatures --is available to organized, special interests, and they widely use these remedies. In contrast, when consumers are defrauded, injured, rendered sick by wrongdoers or other perpetrators of their harm, they find costly dollar and legal hurdles blocking their right of access. They also find indentured politicians and their lobbying allies bent on closing the doors further. Systems of justice are to be used conveniently and efficiently by all the people in this country, not just corporations and the wealthy. Otherwise, the citizen shutout worsens.

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