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«doi: 10.1111/tsq.12062 The Sociological Quarterly ISSN 0038-0253 IS PARTICIPATION WITHOUT POWER GOOD ENOUGH? Introduction to “Democracy Now: ...»

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There is a certain pendulum-like character to those enthusiasms. The Progressive Era movement I described above collapsed when politicians decided that, in the run-up to World War I, public opinion had to be manufactured, not nurtured. By the end of the war, amidst new enthusiasm for using propaganda techniques in peacetime, the notion of a participatory citizenship had lost favor (Mattson 1998). In international development, to give another example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) began funding cooperative institutions in the 1960s, then abandoned those initiatives in favor of large-scale investments in industry and agriculture in the 1970s when it became clear that the cooperatives were not working and government reform was difficult to sustain. In the 1990s, USAID re-embraced ideas of participatory development, partly in response to criticisms of its earlier efforts as top-down and disempowering (Mansuri and Rao 2013). There have been similar back-and-forths in other fields. Whether they reflect collective learning (Sirianni and Friedland 2001) or a reinvention of the wheel remains an open question.

Still, there are several features of the contemporary zeal for participation that are new. One is its sheer scope. In art, appreciation for the lone creator and a sniffy distaste for collaboration have yielded to celebrations of participatory culture and “prosumers” (consumers who are also producers) (Jenkins 2009; Kester 2011). Crowdsourcing has become a favored strategy in business, policymaking, and science (Wexler 2011). Participatory budgeting, once synonymous with the single city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, has spread to thousands of municipalities around the world (Baiocchi and Ganuza 2014).

Briefs for “collective intelligence” are made in education, video gaming, and financial investing (Bonabeau 2009). Books like The Wisdom of Crowds (Surowiecki 2005) are best sellers.

One might say that the late 1960s were similarly marked by a widespread enthusiasm for participation. But participatory institutions then were seen as firmly outside the establishment. Today, they are the establishment. The arguments then for participation were principled. Today, they are practical. Anything but doctrinaire, today’s radical democrats prize flexibility, experimentalism, and measurable results. Promoting citizens’ input makes for better policies, they say; promoting workers’ input makes for better performance. In an important sense, participatory democracy has gone mainstream.

The Internet looms large in today’s landscape of participatory initiatives. There were participatory democratic movement groups, businesses, and political initiatives before the Internet, of course. In culture, just to give one example, there was the DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos of punk rock production and zines (Delwiche 2012). Still, it is undeniable that new digital technologies dramatically lowered the costs of joining, forming, and coordinating groups (Shirky 2008). They made it possible to combat the 457 The Sociological Quarterly 55 (2014) 453–466 © 2014 Midwest Sociological Society Participation without Power Francesca Polletta problems of scale that have long dogged briefs for participatory democracy. In addition, however, digital democracies have produced new modes of cooperation, and new ideas about what democratic cooperation is. Activists in the global justice movement, for instance, have sought to create organizations in which autonomous spheres or publics are linked in multiple ways along the lines of a virtual network. The democracy they practice would seem strange to a 1960s participatory democrat. They talk about autonomy more than equality; about self-management more than leaderlessness; about diversity more than unity (Juris 2008; see Nielsen 2013 on the Occupy movement).

They prefigure a different kind of democracy than 1960s activists did. Cooperative institutions used to require that everyone shoulder an equal burden of the work.

Today, cooperative institutions like Wikipedia have dispensed with that requirement: so little work is required that any one person can do a lot of it without feeling put upon (Shirky 2008).

A third feature of today’s participatory landscape bears note, and it is one to which several authors in this special issue draw attention. Participatory initiatives today take place in the context of reduced government support for social programs. The connection, however, is complicated. In international development, observers say that lenders’ new dedication to participation reflects a “post-Washington consensus” that the burdens of structural adjustment fell mainly on the poor. The solution was to support the poverty-fighting capacities of decentralized states and civil society actors. At the same time, however, participatory development is still constrained by disciplinary financial policies (Craig and Porter 2006). In Britain, David Cameron’s “Big Society” programs involved devolving power “from the élites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street,” as Cameron put it (Collins 2010:38). But the emphasis on local initiatives was combined with deep cuts in social spending.

In some cases, then, a compensation for the effects of a neoliberal agenda, new participatory initiatives also share with neoliberalism an emphasis on nimble, flexible organizations, entrepreneurialism, and a practical, nonpartisan style (see Whitehead 2011 on the neoliberal discourse used by same-sex marriage advocates). The neoliberal context is evident in Alexandra’s essay in the prestige awarded to Wall Street bankers’ ways of organizing work, which spread to smaller investment banks and even outside of investment banks. It is evident in Caroline’s public deliberation projects, which were advertised to corporate executives as a way to secure employees’ support for downsizing and mergers. And it is evident in Nina’s empowerment projects, whose proliferation in the last 30 years owes in part to the erosion of government programs providing social services.

Critics would say that participation in this context is a scam. It is a way to make people feel better about themselves while things are taken away from them: labor power, job security, public assistance. Spectacles of participation substitute for mechanisms of genuine accountability. And the much-vaunted freedom to choose ends up being a more sophisticated form of control. But the articles by Caroline, Alexandra, Nina, and Daniel complicate this picture, in thought-provoking ways. They reveal the obstacles that the people who are sponsoring the participation and the people who are

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participating are up against. And they reveal the undeniable appeal of participation, even when it comes without power.


Caroline complicates the picture of participation as manipulative by showing just how sensitive civic engagement practitioners were to their own capacities for manipulation.

They worked hard to ensure that they did not push their own beliefs, or those of their sponsors, in the talk they facilitated. They described deliberation as an antidote to the ethos of the market that had turned citizens into self-interested and passive consumers.

They truly believed that civic engagement, properly organized and facilitated, could be transformative.

So how, then, did practitioners reconcile this view of civic engagement with the fact that they often worked for for-profit companies? How did they justify advertising their services to corporate executives as a way to gain employee “alignment” (Lee 2014) with policies that might lose employees their jobs, cut benefits, or otherwise require that they make do with less? How did practitioners reconcile a democratizing logic, which emphasized people’s capacity to make their own decisions, with a rationalizing logic, which emphasized standardized practices made to serve the interests of those who paid for them?

They did so, Caroline shows, by shifting their focus from the purposes of democratic facilitation to its quality. Practitioners perfected techniques for ensuring that people with higher status did not monopolize talk, for arriving at conclusions that captured common ground while not precluding disagreement, for helping people to connect to their own feelings and fears. In their own gatherings, practitioners insisted on using their techniques as a way to demonstrate the value of the techniques and their indispensability to meaningful group talk. The same techniques for fostering collaboration, they insisted, could be used in any setting: corporate or civic, in settings where participants were peers or where some participants employed others.

In homogenizing the techniques of facilitated talk though, practitioners also homogenized its purposes. Deliberation aimed at getting people to accept cuts in workplace benefits was assimilated to deliberation aimed at soliciting public input into the design of a new downtown and to deliberation aimed at resolving a conflict between organized stakeholders. Practitioners did not broach the possibility that those settings might require different kinds of talk in order to be democratic. They did not broach the possibility that sometimes participants might not be well served by deliberation, even if sponsors were.

Practitioners’ concern with their own capacity for manipulation thus missed the point, Caroline argues. Making themselves into truly neutral moderators, “custodians of independent process” (Lee 2014), did not solve the problem of the ends to which the process was put. Practitioners may have been successful in creating an authentic-feeling experience of democracy. But whether that should be the standard by which the process is measured is debatable.

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Alexandra’s bankers celebrated their autonomy. No one set their working hours or tracked their productivity or vacation time. No one managed them. And yet they worked up to 120 hours a week. They skipped weekends, they abandoned friends, family, and activities outside work. They pushed their bodies past the breaking point.

Yet they said that this was their own choice. One told Alexandra, “I could not work for an organization that required me to come at 9 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. I want to be in control of my schedule.” She pressed him, “But you work a lot longer than 40-hour weeks.” He answered, “Yes, but this is my choice. I decide when the work gets done” (Michel 2014:522).

This sounds like exploitation masquerading as freedom. But Alexandra complicates the picture by helping us to understand just why the bankers saw themselves as choosing to work so hard. They were driven, but not only by the fear that they would be stigmatized if they did not do so. It was also that they took satisfaction in their ability to work the long hours. They took pride in pushing themselves further than they thought was possible. They were in control of their bodies and, until their bodies broke down, they experienced a sense of potency. One analyst provided insight: “Even the people I meet randomly at the gym, they cannot appreciate my skills. It doesn’t mean anything to them that I worked on deal X. But they do understand and have awe for hard work” (Michel 2014:528). The analogy is apt. Autonomy was like choosing to go for level 12 on the treadmill.

That explains too why the ethos spread beyond investment bankers. Alexandra describes bankers leaving their Wall Street firms when they realized that they could not keep up the pace. They moved to less competitive firms, or outside investment banking altogether, but they brought their work styles with them. A banker at a small firm in Boston gushed about a new Wall Street transplant, “He was the first Wall Street hire that we made and everyone looked at what he did because we just thought that he had it right and that whatever he did was what it took to be successful. I think we all stepped up our effort. No one forced us to. It was just a matter of self-respect” (Michel 2014:527).

What made the bankers’ work style attractive was partly the prestige of Wall Street.

But it was not only that. Alexandra quotes a temporary worker, a dancer, who had worked at a bank simply to earn enough to support her dance. “I have certain financial goals and once they are met, I want to spend every waking hour advancing my dancing,” she explained. But when a former Wall Street banker joined the firm, she changed. “Now when I have earned what I wanted to and feel tired, instead of going home, I just challenge myself and see how much longer I can work. I have a completely new understanding about my capacity for work” (Michel 2014:527).

Challenging oneself felt good, at least for a time. Some of the bankers discovered, often after they suffered physical breakdowns, that they preferred to challenge themselves in ways that they more truly chose, taking up mountain climbing or marathon running or journalism or dressage. But for those who did not have that

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realization, the freedom to choose remained firmly tethered to the demands of high production.


Nina complicates a picture of participation as a way to get people to do more with less by exposing the constraints under which empowerment project staffers labored. Staffers truly wanted to have student volunteers learn skills by taking the reins of the organization. But the projects that students were supposed to come up with had to be submitted to funding agencies before the students had even joined the program. Staffers truly wanted to do the long, slow work of building leadership among their charges.

But that was hard to do when they were under constant pressure to produce evidence of “measurable” outcomes to funding agencies: the number of hours volunteers had read to seniors, the number of “at-risk” youths they had helped to graduate from high school, and so on.

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