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books Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovation

This book analyses social movements around the world that engage with democracy-driven or participatory governance.

Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovation
Edited By Adrian Bua, Sonia Bussu
ISBN: 9781032111216

Reclaiming Participatory Governance is a compelling investigation of the potential for bottom-up forms of democratic innovations to vitalise our democracies. Anchored on Adrian Bua and Sonia Bussu’s concept of “democracy-driven governance” (DDG), this edited volume critically investigates the “potential, limits and opportunities” of social movements’ engagement with participatory and deliberative institutional designs. This is no small feat since social movements and democratic innovations are often seen as crucial in strengthening our democracies.

From the introduction, expectations are high. Pitted against forms of “governance-driven democratisation” (GDD) that tend to be seen as top-down and markedly bureaucratic, DDG is considered in its capacity for effectively “[o]pening up spaces for a deeper critique of minimalist liberal democratic institutions and the neoliberal economy that underpins them”. Of course, this needs to occur at a time when “space for meaningful citizen input is increasingly constrained by technocratic decision-making and global economic pressure”.

The book presents a highly coherent and impressive collection of in-depth analyses that span theory and empirical research, with a great variety of cases. Spain takes centre stage, and there are no case studies from English-speaking countries, going markedly against the tide. Theory is at the heart of the first section. Drawing from fascinating cases in Germany and Iceland, Dannica Fleuss shows the urgency of thinking about democracy beyond liberal institutions. Nick Vlahos introduces the idea of “participatory decommodification of social need” as an interesting way to think about how participatory governance can combat the worst effects of capitalism, with examples from Toronto, Canada. Based on his extensive fieldwork in Rosario, Argentina, Markus Holdo discusses the concept of “democratic care” to unearth the work performed by activists that needs to be recognised in participatory governance. Finally, Hendrik Wagenaar offers a compelling analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the GDD/DGG pair from a political economy standpoint, building on a well-established threefold distinction between the dominant economic, financial system, the political, administrative sector and civil society.

The second part is markedly empirical. Paola Pierri analyses the Orleans Metropole Assise for the Ecological Transition, in France, showing a case of “collaborative countervailing power” that reminds us that the seminal work of Empowered Participatory Governance by Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright remains highly relevant to understand participatory governance. Lucy Cathcart Frodén investigates the parallels between prefigurative social movements and participatory arts projects as well as their potential to contribute to democratic renewal. A rather effective collaboration between “right to the city” activists and local administration is documented in Roberto Falanga’s in-depth analysis of the participatory process for the regeneration of one of the main squares in Lisbon, Portugal. Giovanni Allegretti shows clearly how anticolonial protests irrupt into and benefit participatory experiments in Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland. Mendonça and colleagues, instead, systematically explore strengths and weaknesses of Gambiarra, an unconventional means social movements in Brazil use to break into elites-dominated elections at local and parliamentary level. Bua, Bussu and Davies offer the ultimate comparison about the GDD and DGG models as embodied in the historical trajectories of participatory governance of the cities of Nantes and Barcelona respectively.

The third section highlights problems and limitations. Joan Balcells and colleagues unveil the tension that lay at the basis of the famous participatory platform Decidim. Always focusing on Barcelona, Marina Pera and colleagues look at the Citizen Assets Program showing how lack of trust prevented this very advanced form of democratisation from being embedded into its context. Fabiola Mota Consejero considers another case from Spain where Madrid’s progressive local government broke with a longstanding tradition of conservative patronage but failed to turn its main innovation, Decide Madrid, into an effective means for participatory governance. Patricia Garcia-Espin, instead, shows the fatigue and disappointment of activists involved in another innovation of Madrid’s new municipalist government, the local forums. Finally, Sixtine Van Outryve looks at a fascinating case of a local Yellow Vest organization in Commercy, France, trying to set up an open citizens assembly to have a communalist project represented in the local government that ultimately failed.

The findings in this book are rather sobering. Employing a rigorous approach devoid of self-celebration or ideological dismissal, virtually every chapter of this book details a host of challenges participatory governance faces in the context of minimalist democracies dominated by neoliberal economics. In many case studies, elements of both GDD and DGG coexist, and sometimes one morphs into the other. Second, empirical investigations highlight weaknesses with DGG. This reduces our expectations about this model of democratisation, yet it also lends it a more realistic and useful outlook. Third, while the theoretical section highlights the political economy of participatory governance as a crucial issue, that remains in the background in the empirical analysis, as it tends to happen in the field. This kind of investigation remains essential.

Further, after reading this book, one has the feeling that contemporary participatory governance grapples with two important limitations. First, the promotion of participatory governance remains primarily within the purview of a select group of political actors: progressive parties, particularly those with a robust radical left presence. As we move to the centre of the political spectrum, the idea of reinvigorating democracy, let alone doing so by means of radical participatory governance, seems to lose attractiveness. Indeed, the book consistently shows that, in those uncommon cases in which progressive parties that champion participatory governance take power, they downscale their democratisation ambitions as they face the challenges implied in participatory governance. These can vary from administrative hurdles in implementing innovation to more endogenous problems relating, for example, to internal conflicts arising from differing conceptions of democracy that exacerbate fatigue and disillusionment. Second, the book gives the sense that contemporary participatory governance still has a mass democracy problem. It is still missing any substantial connection with the public at large. Except for occasional influence during electoral campaigns, none of the studied experiments have garnered sustained support or substantial interest from the public at large.

This might seem disheartening, especially because there is no practical solution in sight. The electoral defeat of Spanish municipalism, central to this book, heightens this sensation. Yet, there is not much use in despairing, and a temporal prospective might offer some hope. As Gianpaolo Baiocchi reminds in his refreshing concluding remarks, it is not so long ago that the idea of participatory democracy made its irruption in our democracies. Initially championed by social movements and to a lesser extent Left political projects in the 1960s, this idea was later taken up by mainstream policymakers and international agencies. Unsurprisingly, participatory governance has not been able to singlehandedly compete with the broader political trend towards neoliberal governance; indeed, it has had to adapted to it to some extent. The resistance it meets today shows major limitations. Yet, this volume stands as proof of the ongoing efforts to use participatory governance in critical and democratising ways around the world. It also speaks to the fact that there is great social scientific scholarship trying to understand and strengthen this phenomenon.

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The book often refers to the value of learning from and with activists. Indeed, one of its the most significant contributions is its ability to forge an expanded understanding of participatory governance. This volume goes beyond the perpetual dispute between different conceptions of democracy. It shows how participatory governance todays draws from a rich tapestry of diverse ideas and practices – both old and new. The fact that concepts such as “care”, the “right to the city”, “communalism”, “new municipalism”, “gambiarra” and “decolonisation” are brought together in this volume speaks to the eclectic nature and vitality of contemporary participatory governance. Despite its challenges, participatory governance continues to attract the ingenuity of people and their eagerness for democracy. Persistence is crucial, as these are fundamental ingredients in the struggle to build a more equal and just world.


Note: This post gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Andrea Felicetti, (PhD, Australian National University) is Senior Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Padua. His work focuses on democratic theories, public spheres, and governance. He authored Deliberative Democracy and Social Movements and co-authored Discursive Turns and Critical Junctures. His research appears in numerous international journals including Journal of Politics, Democratization, and European Journal of Political Research.