Participatory Democracy's Moment



Journal of International Affairs
Page numbers: 


Participatory democracy emphasises consensus decision-making and decentralised leadership. The author sees a call for, and greater use of, participatory democracy in such diverse social movements as the anti-austerity protests in Greece, the Spanish Indignados, and the Occupy protests in the United States.

Polletta notes that alternative decision-making processes and organisational structures have a long history in social movements – including late 19th-century Progressives, Anti-Vietnam War protesters, cooperatives and communes of various sorts, Mexican Zapatistas and many others. As movements grew in scale and scope, participatory democracy's potential downside of inefficient decision-making and outright stalemate often led to the reluctant creation of more traditional bureaucracies and chains of command.

The author sees the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle as a turning point. She notes the use of the Internet to quickly scale the protests along with a number of innovative experiments in consensus decision-making. The lessons from Seattle and further experimentation carried over to the first World Social Forum in Porto Allegro, Brazil in 2001. At subsequent World Social Forums and many regional spinoffs, activists were able to share and apply an 'increasingly sophisticated repertoire of tools for radically egalitarian decision making'.

Polletta highlights a number of reasons for this resurgence in participatory democracy in global justice movements:

  • Many people around the world, particularly the young, feel increasingly marginalised economically and largely ignored by their governments. They wish to participate in politics, but outside of traditional institutions such as political parties or civic associations.
  • Activists have modeled their efforts on 'open-source' software and online networks where flexibility, autonomy, openness and contributions from all participants are encouraged and rewarded.
  • Movement leaders have learned that 'structure is not the same as hierarchical structure' and have worked to develop decision-making processes that are 'more egalitarian, more efficient and less prone to stalemate' than attempts at collectivist organisations in the 1960s.

The author concludes that further work will need to be done to make these new decision-making processes more appealing, easier to implement and useable in a wider variety of settings.


Thumbnail image: Edenpictures/Flickr.

Francesca Polletta

University of California, Irvine

Published Date
December 11, 2014