Despite worries that the Occupy movement would not survive the winter, activists continue to highlight ordinary Americans’ frustration with the dysfunction of “the world’s largest democracy.” In January, “Occupy Congress” descended upon Capitol Hill, and in early March students across California organized to “Occupy the Capitol” in Sacramento. But Occupy has done more than just highlight the inadequacies of American-style representative democracy. It is giving direct, participatory forms of democracy, like the General Assembly model, a new lease on life. So far, Occupy’s participatory democratic decision-making has been confined to public spaces outside the halls of government power. The question for Occupy is, can the movement bring participatory democracy inside?
Participatory budgeting, a relatively novel form of participatory governance that is not dissimilar from the vaunted New England “Town Hall” meetings, represents one promising model. The best-known “modern” example of participatory budgeting, also known as PB, was initiated by the Workers’ Party in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in the late 1980s. Since that time, PB has spread to hundreds of cities and a number of state governments around the world. Although the specific details vary, PB (almost) always involves grassroots public assemblies that give ordinary citizens the chance to deliberate about and exert some degree of control over public spending.
On the ground, PB is demanding. It is no surprise that participatory democracy requires extensive participation by ordinary people. But the impact is impressive. In Porto Alegre, PB has led to civic empowerment, more transparency over government spending and a redistribution of public resources. In Chicago and New York, anecdotal evidence suggests similar benefits.
Before the raids that spelled the end of physical occupation, a number of Occupy groups began discussing the potential for PB to become part of the movement’s strategic repertoire. Excited by the advent of PB in four city council districts in New York City, Occupy Wall Street held a PB teach-in last October. Since then, Occupy groups up and down the East Coast from Boston to Greensboro have followed suit and are exploring ways to bring PB to their cities. The Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York based non-profit, has organized a conference on PB to be held at the end of March in New York, and Occupy activists from a number of cities, including Boston, Chicago, New York and Oakland, are expected to attend. Conference goers will have the opportunity to observe assemblies in the four city council districts where PB was introduced last fall. These assemblies will decide how to spend nearly $6 million (a bit over $1 million per district), surpassing the $1.3 million that was distributed in Chicago’s 49th ward by alderman Joe Moore, who became the first US politician to introduce PB in November 2009.
Not all Occupy activists have embraced PB. In October, a proposal to support PB was voted down at Occupy Oakland, in part due to a general resistance to engage formal political spaces. However, supporters of that proposal came together as a group called the Community Democracy Project (CDP) to continue to work to bring PB to Oakland. (We both joined CDP in November and have been active members of the group since that time.) Through a voter initiative, CDP’s goal is to revamp the Oakland City Charter to make way for the creation of neighborhood assemblies that would be given decision-making power over the city’s entire discretionary budget. Despite Occupy Oakland’s initial reluctance to support PB, CDP members (including the authors of this piece) have continued to engage the movement. At Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly this past Sunday, many activists appeared ready to embrace PB when approached by CDP. But not all were convinced. One woman commented that she was not interested in PB because, “I think the system needs a total overhaul."
Is participatory budgeting an answer to the question of what’s next for Occupy? Perhaps. But, in order for this to happen, proponents of the strategy need to convince Occupy activists that PB can do more than provide window dressing for continued elite and corporate control over political decision-making. Many in the Occupy movement are deeply skeptical of anything that smacks of cooperation with the state. To make PB meaningful (and convince skeptics that it is worth pursuing), two things need to happen. First, the rift between the seemingly irreconcilable logics of institutional and insurgent politics has to be bridged. Just as significantly, corporations and the wealthy must be forced to pay their fair share in taxes. Otherwise PB will amount to little more than popular control over austerity.
As Porto Alegre and other cities have shown, PB requires (and can help lead to) functioning government institutions. But to be effective, institutional reforms like PB must be accompanied by popular struggle and direct action. One of the most impressive examples of PB, in the Venezuelan municipality of Torres, demonstrates this well. Since 2005, ordinary citizens in Torres have had control over 100 percent of the local investment budget . This represents a significant victory for popular power, but it did not come without a fight. PB was vigorously supported by Torres’ (now ex-) mayor Julio Chávez but was opposed by a majority of Torres’ city councilors. In order to overcome their opposition, Chávez mobilized hundreds of supporters to physically occupy City Hall, after which the councilors agreed to implement PB. Torres underscores an important point: PB should not be seen as a reformist alternative but a radical extension of the insurgent logic underpinning the Occupy movement.
The rejection of “trickle-down” economics and what Paul Krugman calls “destructive fiscal austerity” is equally important for PB to take root. Occupy has shown that the consequences of market fundamentalism – poverty, rising inequality, and crippled democratic institutions – will not be tolerated forever. To achieve the radical transformation of political and economic institutions that the US – and the world – so desperately needs, the insurgent energy of Occupy must be combined with radical-but-concrete measures such as PB, progressive taxation, and the fight to end of corporate personhood.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this piece did not fully acknowledge the authors' involvement in Oakland's Community Democracy Project. The text has been updated to reflect their involvement.