College Quarterly
Fall 2006 - Volume 9 Number 4
Reviews Participatory Democracy: Prospects for Democratizing Democracy
Dimitrios Roussopoulos & C. George Benello, eds.
Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

It has been some time since the phrase “participatory democracy” was uttered in polite company. For many people of a certain age, however, the term evokes fond memories. It emanated out of the radical American group, Students for a Democratic Society, in 1962. In the iconic Port Huron Statement, originally drafted by Tom Hayden, the ills of representative democracy dominated by major economic organizations were elaborated, and a call went out for grass-roots organization and the active involvement of citizens in the decisions that affected their lives.

Students, neighbourhood groups, the urban poor, trade unionists and the variously marginalized were encouraged to take the political life of their communities back from the elites who vied for power in a friendly give-and-take of control over the authoritative allocation of values. Pluralist democracy was held up to scrutiny and revealed to be a sham in which control was centralized within the plutocracy and sustained by the bureaucracy. It was affirmed that only direct action could cure political ills or, as the American social reformer Jane Addams (1860-1935) once proclaimed, the “only cure for democracy is more democracy.”

Variously associated with the Civil Rights struggle, anti-poverty activists, Peace coalitions and the emerging feminist, environmental and industrial democracy movements, participatory democracy was initially deemed idealistic at best and subversive at worst by sundry members of what was conveniently known as the “Establishment.”

In time, however, it was tentatively incorporated into the rhetoric of the Establishment itself. Pierre Trudeau’s home page, for example, tells us that he “espoused participatory democracy as a means of making Canada a ‘Just Society.’” It quickly adds, however, that he “later opposed greater involvement for citizens in representative democracy,” presumably having come to his senses and realized that the people are not to be trusted. Though only briefly in fashion, some echo of the idea was heard as late as the 1990s when previously authoritarian college administrators and innovative managers in both private and public corporations toyed with the notion of “participatory management.” Their enthusiasms soon evaporated, of course, as soon as it was learned that citizens and employees might take the concept seriously, and attempt to influence the substance as much as the style of decision making. As soon as the authorities learned that it threatened something stronger that an exercise in corporate cheerleading, a kind of elaborately ritualized “suggestion box,” it was abruptly abandoned.

Presently, however, there may be some reason to recall the heady days when committed young people, sometimes in alliance with mentors such as American socialist Michael Harrington, in company with eager academics like Carol Pateman and in thrall to septuagenarian revolutionary gurus like Herbert Marcuse, set off on a campaign not only to open up the corridors of power, but also to stress the life-affirming joy of political involvement for its own sake.

Today, the populist thrust of participatory democracy is visible on the Internet where the organization of demonstrations, the sharing of information and the collection of donations for political causes are all available in abundance. True, pornography continues to dominate the World Wide Web, but alternative news sources and progressive political promotions are certainly accessible as well.

In this context, it is good to be reminded of the origins of the yeasty rebelliousness that can now be found in cyberspace and among the intimates of Warren Beatty, George Clooney, Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand. To that end, editors Dimitrios Roussopoulos and the late C. George Benello have produced a much revised version of the original 1970 edition of this book, a volume that was part inspiration and part reference work for a generation of earnest social reformers.

The contents are familiar to any of the old war horses of the era. Infused more with the sensibilities of anarchists than the doctrines of the so-called “Old Left,” the nineteen contributors write earnestly about the usual range of issues.

George Woodcock is there to give participatory democracy an historical context. The ancient Cynics and the early Christians, seventeenth-century Levellers such as John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley, and the likes of Godwin, Owen, Proudhon, the communards of Paris in 1871 and Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War all win Woodcock’s homage.

Gerry Hunnius recalls the optimism embedded in self-management and worker control in what is now euphemistically called the former Yugoslavia. Murray Bookchin explains how technology can become liberatory. Christian Bay writes persuasively about how a distorted (neoliberal) definition of freedom abrogates the freedoms essential to human dignity and individuality, and replaces them with the false freedom of the market, which provides the freedom to invest to the rich and the freedom to starve to the poor. Nods of approval are given to cyberneticians and community organizers, who may use computers or town hall meetings to press the authentic needs of the people onto a political agenda that was previously defined exclusively by the authorities and sycophantic interest groups.

Finally, C. L. R. James expresses the delights of amateurism in a concluding essay that goes to the core of the matter. Entitled “Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece—Its Meaning for Today,” he contests the baseless but widely believed opinions that abound in the media and the public pronouncements of those already in power, and that insist that citizens have neither the wit nor the will to govern themselves.

The ease with which people acquiesce in their own oppression and the ability of the elites to change the subject whenever anyone gets too near the truth are common themes throughout. Those elitist assumptions need to be challenged wherever and whenever possible, for they have brought about a local and a global society that is increasingly toxic to humans and other living things. Our democracy desperately needs more democracy, and a reflection upon these essays is a credible place to start the process.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology