Archon Fung & Erik Olin Wright (eds.): Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance.

Author:Renton, Dave
Position::Book Review

Archon Fung & Erik Olin Wright (eds.) Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance. Verso, London & New York, 2003, ix + 310 pp.

The years 2003 and 2004 saw the publication of several books designed to map out a non-neoliberal future, including Michael Albert's Parecon, Hilary Wainwright's Reclaim the State, and George Monbiot's The Age of Consent. Their success attests to the maturity of anti-capitalist politics. The most creative writers in the movement are no longer simply publishing critiques of imperialism or capitalism, but are also looking for trends that might actually result in a different society. While Fung and Olin Wright's Deepening Democracy is perhaps less well known than some of these other accounts, it is among the most interesting. The authors are willing to study a range of examples, including both those that emerged through a conscious process of leftwing state building, and those that did not. They do not assume the superiority of their models, but consider counter-arguments with the attention they deserve.

In a lengthy introduction, the editors spell out the appeal and limitations of what they term 'empowered participatory governance' (EPG). The four chapters that follow study particular examples of participatory democracy, including neighbourhood governance councils in Chicago, the Habitat Conservation Plans scheme in North America, the budget system found in Porto Alegre, and forms of village councils developed in Kerala and West Bengal. These chapters share a format in which the practical content of each instance of local democracy is considered first, followed by an account of the monitoring that takes place, and its actual success. In the second half of the book, four further chapters consider the original case studies on a comparative basis, asking how far each takes forward their common ideas of egalitarian, democratic government.

The introduction to the book lists six serious potential counterarguments, each of which might diminish the argument for EPG. They are as follows:

  1. The democratic character of local democracy may be corroded if people defer to the authorised expertise of allies.

  2. External agencies may limit the scope of participation, for example by attending any forum only when it suits them.

  3. Participation may be taken over by interest groups.

  4. The devolutionary character of EPG might actually diminish the possibilities of collective planning, say at a...

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