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Contributors: Claire Blencowe; Patrick Bresnihan; Julian Brigstocke; Leila Dawney; Sam Kirwan; Naomi Millner; Helen Nicholson; Tehseen Noorani; Jenny Pearce; Michel Pimbert; Tom Wakeford


This book gathers together a collection of essays organised around three ‘problems’ of participatory democracy. These problems raise questions, conundrums and challenges for participatory practice and thinking. They point towards both difficulties and opportunities. We are not identifying ‘problems’ in order to simply criticize or reject participation. Problems are an enduring part of all worthwhile practice, driving creativity, understanding and skills. Our aim is to vitalize participatory thought and practice by raising and reflecting upon three broad problems.

The first problem that the essays address is that ‘Participatory Democracy Needs Authority’. The authors of essays in this section affirm the value of democracy, paying particular attention to how it needs to be cultivated through structures of authority. Those who have authority and those who grant it are connected by bonds of trust that allow us to hold people and actions to account. Democracy’s dependence upon authority constitutes a problem, creating challenges and dilemmas, because trust takes time and emotional labour to build and often seems to be a scarce resource. Moreover, we have to deal with the fact that there are always power relations and inequalities at play – however participatory our practice or democratic our intentions.

The second problem that we take up is that ‘Participatory Democracy is a Craft’. Rather than understanding democracy in terms of electoral politics, and participation in terms of handbooks and manuals brimming with the latest techniques and models, the contributors attend to the subtleties of effective participation, whether in civil society activity, processes of collaborative learning or in ‘ordinary’ life. Enhancing democracy through better forms of participation requires particular ethical and embodied sensibilities and commitments, which can only be developed through practical experience, and which need to be nurtured through slow apprenticeship. Democracy is craftwork more than it is a set of institutions, textbook techniques or processes. However, as the authors of this section suggest, it is a difficult, costly and embodied challenge to learn the skills and ethos of such craft.

The final problem is that ‘Participatory Democracy is a Struggle Against Privatization’. Many advocates of participatory democracy are more or less explicitly committed to resisting ‘privatization’ both in the sense of commodification and market dominance, and in the sense of individualisation of life and experience – seeing both as opposed to equality and dignity. But many proponents of neo-liberal marketization and individualised freedom also promote myriad forms of ‘participation’. Further, as is evident in theatre box offices, ‘participation sells’. This raises awkward questions and uncomfortable challenges for proponents of participation – a challenge that the authors of this section try to address, in part, by reframing participation in terms of acting in, and creating, alternative visions of what we share in common.

We hope that this collection of essays helps in opening up conversations around participation. Such conversation is crucial, not simply for specialist communities of practitioners or academics, but for everyone who is interested in democracy and dignity today. ‘Participation’ has become nigh on ubiquitous as an ambition, description and buzzword throughout social life, from marketing strategies and economic development, through government reform and alternative politics, to education and the arts. We might even say that participation is the form, the mode of organisation, that defines our present moment. Participation is our condition, our imperative and our problem.