When the Workers Party took over the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, they introduced “participatory budgeting.” It was a radical experiment for this industrial city of 1.3 million people. Ordinarily, the city budget was an opportunity for political elites to distribute funds and contracts to their cronies. The Workers Party changed all that by opening up the budgeting process to everyone. Preparatory meetings of citizens take place every spring to gather the opinions and needs of individuals, civic movements, and representatives of unions, business, and political parties. This deliberative process, in which the allocation of funds becomes a vital discussion, then feeds into an assembly of delegates, who represent different regions of the city and address different budget themes such as transportation, health, and taxation. This process gradually prioritizes needs from the grassroots upwards according to an intriguing system that assigns relative values to different line items. In 1996, the mayor’s office estimated that 8 percent of the city’s population – 100,000 people – participated in at least one of the meetings on the budget. The experiment is by no means flawless. There are many, often long meetings; large-scale development is sometimes held hostage to sectoral interests; outside funds, for instance from the World Bank, distort the process. But participatory budgeting has reduced corruption, demystified the budget process, and made city planning a far more just system. Government funds have flowed in a more equitable direction. To cite only one example, the number of houses in the city connected to the sewage treatment system doubled between 1989 and 1996. The experiment has spread to other Brazilian cities, to other countries such as Uruguay and Tanzania, and has even spawned a new international movement.
The state has been under considerable attack in the last several decades.The attack on the state was once a focus of Marxist-Leninists, who envisioned a withering away of this bourgeouis institution. But more recently, the state has come under seige from the Right, which has attempted to radically narrow and privatize its functions in order to free up the corporate sector. To save the state by making it more democratic – that is, more responsive to the needs of the majority and more answerable to the aspirations of disenfranchised minorities – has been a major component of progressive activists. This task is complicated not only by the ongoing attacks on the state and a certain level of apathy within the electorate. There is also the misuse of the term “democracy” to describe the compromised political system of the United States and the U.S. imposition of this system on other countries. The challenge then becomes: how to reinvigorate democracy both in the United States and elsewhere in the world? Some activists call for changes in the U.S. voting system itself, through proportional representation and weighted voting. Others have pushed for the application of new technologies such as e-polling and teledemocracy to expand the political space. Then there are grassroots movements that champion the democracy of the streets to mobilize power and effect political change. And then there are those who are, quite literally, all talk. Behind deliberative democracy is the notion that discussion, rather than mere voting, is critical for democracy to work. The New England town meeting model, participatory budgeting, the round table discussions that cropped up in Poland and East Germany during their transitions in 1989-90: these are all examples of sustained conversations that facilitate greater civic involvement and more informed political decision-making.
Is deliberative democracy practical in a multicultural, multilingual or simply highly diverse country? Such deliberations imply a neutral space, an even playing field, so how can deliberative democracy function in societies or communities marked by disparities of wealth and power? Can there ever be anything such as a national conversation, or is deliberative democracy a tool only for localities? When do conversations end and actions begin? How can deliberative democracy address the coercive aspects of the state, from its police functions to its military policies? How can deliberative democracy function in a post-9/11 world in which states are restricting civil liberties and shutting down public debate on security, foreign policy, and intelligence matters.
On a trip to the Provisions Library, take a look at the political success stories of young activists in How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, check out the latest analytical pieces in the journalSocialism and Democracy, go on line to see how Western Australia has applied principles of deliberative democracy, see how 45 artists expressed their rage and creativity in the Voting Booth project, listen to Democracy Now, and see a film on the WTO demos in Seattle entitled This is What Democracy.