Participatory democracy in Porto Alegre and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil


Education in the UK is being driven by a neo-liberal agenda which ensures its subordination to the demand for profitable human capital for economic competitiveness in the globalised corporate economy. This indirect commodification of education is achieved through a combination of an authoritarian managerialist regime and direct forms of commodification through the marketisation and partial privatisation of provision. This education agenda is international, promoted in nationally specific forms by governments around the world and mediated by key international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation. In Europe the European Commission is supervising the gradual convergence of education policies around the neo-liberal agenda.

Contrary to the proponents of corporate globalisation, this process is not inevitable or irresistible. That raises two questions. One is what alternative vision of education do we propose? The other, rather less often addressed, is how can we achieve it? How can we bridge the gap between critiques of what exists and utopian visions of what we would like to exist? I agree with the conclusion of Smyth et al (2000) at the end of their book Teachers’ Work in a Globalizing Economy:

It is usual in the conclusion to a book to make some form of recommendation for policy development. In the present context, we can only predict that such recommendations will fall on deaf ears, as educational policy is being developed by neo-liberal governments that care little for a democratic imagining of schooling. Now is not the time, however, to be silent. Rather, it is necessary to find ways to support teachers in schools and other counter-publics who are struggling to realize an egalitarian view of schooling. (p188)

The more convincing is the critique of the economic and political imperatives of government policy, the less credible is a reliance on an appeal to that same government to remedy it. What other social agents have the potential to resist the neo-liberal agenda and develop alternatives?

One candidate is the teachers’ unions. In France in 2000 strikes by teachers and occupations of hundreds of schools led to the dismissal of the French minister of education. In Italy in the same year there were huge demonstrations by teachers and others in defence of education. On a rather smaller scale, in England this year the NUT took strike action over the London salary allowance and is discussing a proposal to boycott SATs next year. Parents and communities have also campaigned in defence of education, most notably in England the campaign against cuts in education budgets which contributed to the defeat of the past Conservative government. Both of these forms of collective action in education have been largely neglected by academic commentators. These are forms of opposition outside the institutional structures of educational decision-making. They have also been largely defensive in character. Is there also a possibility of developing resistance and alternatives through democratic participation in educational decision-making at the local level?

The decline in confidence in the workings of representative democracy in Britain and other contemporary liberal democracies has generated a debate about ways of renewing democratic involvement and accountability in a revitalised civil society.1
The solution has generally been seen as the creation of new forms of popular participation at the local level. These have ranged from little more than the application of technologies of consultation imported from marketing and consumer research to more authentic forms of deliberative democracy which communities have made use of to assert their own interests in, for example, estate management or urban regeneration projects (Hatcher 1999). Local participation is of course a theme of New Labour’s agenda for modernisation and has largely been readily assimilated to it.

In education participatory developments have been even more limited than in other areas of public provision. There has been no significant development in popular participation since the Taylor Report on school governing bodies in 1977. But school governing bodies remain subordinate to government dictates, and have no direct democratic procedures connecting them to parents and community, apart from the election every few years of parent members, a minority, who are specifically not regarded as representatives of the parent body. Local Education Authorities have no, or merely token, direct popular representation. Government claims that the governing bodies of Education Action Zones would be a new form of participatory governance, have not been borne out. The reality has been dominance by management interests and the marginalisation of community, parent and teacher representation (Hatcher and Leblond 2001).

It is not only practical experiences that have been lacking. Opponents of the continuing economic instrumentalism, managerialisation and privatisation of public education have been unable to develop an alternative vision of democratic participation and control. It is symptomatic that although the principle of local accountability has been a theme of local campaigns against the privatisation of LEA services they have never gone beyond a defence of the very limited form of accountability represented by local education authorities.

What is absent from this debate is any positive experience of radical democratic participation in education which could serve as a reference point for a different perspective. There is however one such experience taking place today which deserves to be widely known. I am referring to the experience of participatory democracy in the south of Brazil, in which education is a central element.

Brazil: the federal government and the PT

Since Brazil emerged from a military dictatorship in the late 70s and early 80s, it has been ruled by civilian governments promoting neo-liberal policies. Under the current president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was elected in 1994, Brazil has pursued an economic policy based on the ‘Washington consensus’: opening up the economy to foreign investment, the privatisation of public services, the denationalisation and recolonisation of the economy (Rocha 2002). However, this neo-liberal programme also included a number of educational reforms: in particular, the decentralisation of control over education to state and municipal levels, the promotion of democratic governance of schools, and relating the curriculum to students’ social contexts. This created a space which has been exploited by the principal opposition party in Brazil, the Workers Party (PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores) to go far beyond the government agenda and create a counter-discourse to it.2 The PT has developed a radical popular democratic approach to policy making and implementation in the public sector, including in education. The PT’s rationale for participatory democracy is based on its critique of both representative liberal democracy of the West, further corrupted in Brazil by a culture of clientelism, and the failed bureaucratic states of the East.

The most extensive and radical experiences have been in the state of Rio Grande do Sul (hereafter, RS), a state of some 10 million people in the south of Brazil, bordering Argentina and Uruguay, and in its capital, Porto Alegre, a city of 1.3 million people. In the municipal elections of 1988 in Porto Alegre the PT gained control of the mayor’s office (the Prefeitura), and it has been re-elected three times since. In 1989 it instituted a process called the Participatory Budget (hereafter, PB), in which the city’s annual budget was decided on through a process of participatory democracy based on popular assemblies.

In 1998 the PT won the election for the state governorship of Rio Grande do Sul. The linchpin of its programme, drawing on the experience of Porto Alegre, was the establishment of radical democratic reform on a state-wide basis.

The Participatory Budget structure

In Porto Alegre the participatory structure is a pyramid of three levels; the micro-local, the ‘regional’ (i.e. the 16 sectors into which the city is divided), and the municipal or city-wide level. Meetings are organised at the micro-level of the street, the apartment block, the neighbourhood. These meetings are self-organised, not organised by the municipality. The city is divided into 16 geographical ‘regions’. Each region has three types of PB structure – a regional popular assembly, open to all, sub-regional assemblies, covering a number of neighbourhoods, and a Regional Forum, meeting monthly, to which each popular assembly elects delegates. In addition to this territorially-based structure there is a parallel process based on six specific service sectors or ‘themes’, of which education is one.

The city-wide Participatory Budget Council (Conselho do Orçamento Participativo – COP), consisting mainly of councillors elected by the regional and thematic assemblies, is the main participatory institution, the site of the dialogue between the popular movement and the city administration. It meets once or twice a week during the PB process. It defines criteria for prioritisation and resource allocation, defends the priorities of regions and themes, discusses revenue and expenditure, drafts the detailed Investment Plan, and votes on the budget proposal presented by the executive.

The Participatory Budget process

The budget plan is developed over a period of months through a series of cycles of meetings at the micro-local, regional and city-wide levels. Three criteria determine the budget allocation for each of the 16 regions of the city – the priorities voted on, the existing levels of provision in terms of infrastructure and services, and the population. To them are applied three logics: a majority-democratic logic, a technical logic, and a redistributive logic (Gret and Sintomer 2002). In brief, each regional popular assembly selects its service priorities. The executive assesses the technical viability of projects. The municipality produces an index of the existing levels of provisions of services and infrastructures in each region. Variations between the population of the regions are taken into account. The COP then decides on the relative weight of the various criteria to ensure that service needs in less provided areas of the city receive proportionately more funding.

The state government structure in RS parallels that of Porto Alegre, with an elected executive, headed by the state governor. In 1998 the PT candidate, Olivio Dutra, won the election for governor. The annual Participatory Budget process at the level of the state, which comprises all the state public services including education (the state is directly responsible for secondary education), was launched in 1999.3 It consists of regional meetings in the 22 regions of the state, popular assemblies in each of the 497 municipalities with more than 1000 inhabitants, and the election of delegates to the State Participatory Budget Council. Again, a logic of redistribution applies.

Porto Alegre has demonstrated that participatory democracy can provide efficient government. The city has prospered during the 13 years that the PT has been in office, according to a range of indicators (see Gret and Sintomer 2002, pp65-74).

Redistributive government

The PB is driven by a redistributive logic which derives from one of the three budget criteria: the extra weighting given to the demands of the regions of the city with the greatest needs. Marquetti’s conclusion to his evaluative study of the PB process in Porto Alegre is that ‘The most important effect of the PB-PoA is the redistribution of resources to deprived and poor neighbourhoods…’ (Marquetti 2000. See also Abers 2000).

At the state level a study recently published by Schneider and Goldfrank also draws a positive balance-sheet:

…the experience of participatory budgeting in Rio Grande do Sul contradicts some accepted wisdom within theories of participation and theories of budgeting. First, participatory democracy appears to be both possible and advantageous in large groups. Second, participation does not necessarily imply a loss of capacity to operate efficiently and plan effectively. Third, budgeting institutions can be understood as part of a more general political project to exemplify and advance class interests in participatory forms of democracy and redistributive modes of development. (Schneider and Goldfrank 2002, p20)

Radical democracy and the politics of the PT in Porto Alegre and RS

The PB process has attracted considerable international attention. For example, it has been positively evaluated by UNESCO (2000). However, Santos (1998) warns that there is a danger of ‘interpreting the institutional innovation in isolation from its historical and sociological embeddedness and specificity, thereby reducing it to a few abstract traits composing a model to be applied elsewhere by expert knowledge’ (p32). Similarly Baiocchi comments that theorists of deliberative democracy who have commented favourably on Porto Alegre have generally disregarded the ‘driving political vision behind the project’ (1999, p31). consider the PT’s strategy of participatory democracy in general.

The PT is a party with a significant degree of internal democracy. It allows internal tendencies. The tendency most committed to participatory democracy is Socialist Democracy (Democracia Socialista – hereafter DS), generally regarded as the most left-wing current within the PT. At the national level DS is a minority within the PT. However, in the state of RS DS is the dominant tendency. The dominance of DS in the party is reflected in the composition of the municipal and state governments, including the administration of education. For example, the state secretary of education, Lucia Camini, is a DS supporter.

For DS, participatory democracy is situated within a perspective of the struggle for socialism. The social agent of that struggle is the self-organised popular movement, comprising the working class and its allies. Participatory democracy is one key process through which the self-organised popular movement constructs itself (Pont 2001). Luis Felipe Nelson of the RS vice-governor’s office insists that participatory democracy is neither a replacement for social struggle nor a shortcut to socialism:

It doesn’t challenge the social relations in society, and it doesn’t transfer ownership of the means of production. We remain convinced that only a rupture with the existing system will lead to fundamental advances. Our contribution to that struggle, and the originality of what we are doing here, is to build a solid system of direct democracy which involves large sections of the population in the social and political struggles that can create the possibility for a rupture. (Quoted in Johnson 1999 p21)

The strategy of the PT is to mobilise the population through the participatory democracy process not simply to create a more active citizenship or to achieve a fairer distribution of social goods, but to create a counter-hegemonic force capable of confronting the federal government and the capitalist state.

Participatory democracy as a collective process of self-education is a key theme in the PT’s strategic vision. Participatory democracy is a practical laboratory in which subordinate social layers – the working class and its allies – are creating themselves as the potential future leading force in society. Through a process which is gradual, uneven, sometimes conflictual, a new solidaristic culture and new social identities are being formed. Moll and Fischer (2002) emphasise that PB is a ‘political pedagogy’. In part it is the acquisition and application of the skills of democratic participation, a process described by Abers in her case-study of meetings in Extremo Sul, one of the regions of Porto Alegre (Abers 2000, p81ff). But it is more than that. PB articulates the community, the local space, to the city as a whole. In the words of one delegate quoted by Moll and Fischer:

…the councillors themselves begin to identify the PB as a school. They begin to say ‘It’s our university’. It’s a school of citizenship, because – as a process of constituting the city – it doesn’t hand over to someone else the destiny of the city, everybody feels themselves responsible for the destiny of their city’ (pp114-5).

The conception of participatory democracy as an educational process which transforms its participants is central to the RS government’s education strategy.

In this workers’ struggle for their rights, in their organisation and mobilisation we find a new kind of relationship between Education and the construction of the human being. […] …the exercise of demands and social struggle are in themselves educative processes for the effective construction of transformative historical individuals. […]

The struggle itself for education, for the right to go to school and for changes in its role and the way in which they develop their work, for example, the exercise of this right of demanding rights, creates in the individual a new vision of society, new relations among them, a political culture where workers identify themselves effectively as individuals who are transforming and constructing history.
(Rio Grande do Sul State Department of Education 2000, pp31-2).

This same conception of the relationship between social action and individual learning and change informs its conception of education in school.

For the Popular Government, democratising means constructing in a participatory way an education project of Social Quality, transformative and liberating, in which the school is a practical laboratory for the exercise and conquest of rights, of the formation of historical, autonomous, critical, creative individuals, full citizens, identified with the ethical values oriented to the construction of a solidaristic social project. It is also about forming individuals who place at the centre of their concerns the practice of justice, liberty, human respect, fraternal relations between men and women and harmonious coexistence with nature. In this vision we reaffirm our commitment to the deeply humanist character of the public school, in opposition to the vision, which is today hegemonic, of submission to the values of the market, whose sole concern is to create consumers and customers and to turn education into a commodity subordinated to the logic of entrepreneurialism, naturalising individualism, conformism, competition, resignation and, in consequence, exclusion.
(Rio Grande do Sul State Department of Education 2000, pp95-7)

Underpinning this conception is a theory of the dialectical relationship between knowledge and social practice in the tradition of the most influential Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. The ‘Dialectic Conception of Knowledge’ brings together a theory of learning, a theory of individual change, and a theory of social change, which provides a unifying conceptual framework encompassing education within the school and education through radical democratic control over the school, over the local state, and beyond.

The School Constituency

This conception is translated into policy and practice through a process of popular participation specifically in policy-making in education, complementing the PB process. This is developed most at the state level, where it is called the ‘School Constituency’ (Constituinte Escolar). The School Constituency process is designed to enable popular participation in education policy-making at two levels: the local school, and the state education system as a whole. It is not an annual process like the PB. It was initiated in 1999 and is still continuing. It is based on five principles:

1. Education as a right of all citizens, with particular emphasis on the situation of those who throughout history have been denied this right, not having access to school or being excluded from it.
2. Popular participation as a method of management of public policy in the field of education, stimulating and guaranteeing the conditions for the collective construction of the education we want.
3. Dialogue as an ethical-existential principle of a humanist and solidaristic project, which respects differences and the plurality of visions of the world, while also being critical and proactive in the face of social inequalities and injustices.
4. Radicalisation of Democracy as the strategic objective of a government of the left, committed to the interests of the majority, the popular classes, stimulating co-management of the public sphere as a step towards popular sovereignty and control over the state.
5. Utopia as a motivating vision of the education and the school we want and also of the project of socio-economic development which is both possible and necessary for the great majority of the excluded and the exploited in the capitalist system. Utopia as the motor force, driving forward the society we want to build.
(Rio Grande do Sul State Department of Education 2000, pp38-9).

The School Constituency process

The School Constituency process has been organised in five stages. The first stage was the launch by the State Department of Education, with representatives of school communities, organisations of civil society, public organisations, and higher education institutions, followed by regional launch meetings and the election of coordinating committees in each school and at regional level. In the second stage an analysis was carried out of local situations and educational practices in schools and popular organisations – teaching methods, ways of evaluating learning, how class councils worked, ways of community participation in school management, alternative projects in various knowledge areas. The analysis of practice revealed the main conflicts and difficulties encountered. On that basis 25 issues were identified. Among them were: school non-attendance and retention; democratic management; teaching children and adolescents; violence; education in rural areas; development projects and education; the professional development of education workers; scientific knowledge and popular knowledge. The third stage comprised an in-depth exploration of these issues, combined with the study of education theorists, resulting in the production of theoretical briefings for each of the 25 issues.

On that basis principles and policies were defined and explained in a ‘Base Text’. This draft document was discussed and amended in 191 municipal or micro-regional conferences held in June 2000, involving 60,000 people. The conferences resulted in a revised Base Text which was the basis of 31 Regional Pre-Conferences held in August 2000 with about 9000 delegates elected from the municipal or micro-regional pre-conferences. Finally, a further revised version of the Base Text was discussed at the State Conference by 3,500 delegates elected from the Regional conferences, organised into 100 working groups. At the end, all the proposals were voted on in the final plenary session. The current phase of the School Constituency is the translation of the agreed policies into policies and practices at school level, and within the State education department.

The democratisation of school

The central concept of the School Constituency, democratisation, has three dimensions: the democratisation of access, the democratisation of knowledge, and the democratisation of management. The first of these can be summarised very briefly by listing the main policies: Inclusion projects; Expansion of high school; Develop pre-school; Special needs; Adult literacy; Education projects for youth and adult workers. The democratisation of knowledge entails a profound transformation of the school as an institution to root it in the social reality of the community and adapt it to their needs.

The democratisation of management applies both at school level and at the level of the state education system as a whole. The democratisation of the management of the school takes the form of the direct election of the school principal and vice-principal, and the election of the School Council as the leading body, composed of representatives of all the sectors of the school community – parents, students, teachers and other school workers – with deliberative powers. The democratisation of the state educational administration entails replacing the existing bureaucratic, fragmented, top-down and centralised mode of functioning with one responsive to local demands.

Evaluating the participatory democracy experience

Participatory democracy in Porto Alegre and RS should therefore be evaluated not only in term of what Baiocchi (1999), speaking of Porto Alegre, calls the ‘radical democratic vision of popular control of city government and of inversion of government priorities’ but also in terms of its success in helping to construct a radical social movement as a new social agent.

The growth of popular participation

The most elementary indicator of the success of the PT strategy is the number of people from the popular classes taking part. In the PB process the overall numbers have steadily increased both in PA and in RS. Íria Charão, the secretary for community relations in the PB process at the state level, describes progress since the process began three years earlier.
This is a process that starts with the people that have more of a tradition of participation, but it is a process that as the demands and needs are responded to, more people start participating, people that have never been involved in anything participatory before. To prove this, participation in the first year was 190,000 people, the second year 280,000 people, the third year 378,000 people, and it is growing each day in quantity and in the quality of the debate because people start interacting and meeting each other and communicating with each other about this process and consequently calling more people to participate. That is why it is a process, it is not just a ready-made formula.4

In the School Constituency process 60,000 people took part in local meetings to discuss the draft policy text. Though this is a tiny percentage of the population of the state, it was the first such experience, and it still represents a significant number of people taking a direct part in education policy-making.

The social composition of participants

One of the criticisms of participatory democracy is that existing patterns of inequality in society can be reproduced as inequalities in participation, and that the participation process can even serve to provide a façade of legitimacy to them. A number of researchers have studied the social composition of participatory meetings in Porto Alegre. According to a survey by Baiocchi (1999) of participation in regional meetings, the average participant was of lower economic and educational status than the average citizen of Porto Alegre. Marquetti concludes a similar study by saying that

It is therefore possible to identify the typical participants in the rodadas [the rounds of meetings] as belonging to the poor segment of Porto Alegre’s population, having a low family income and little or no formal education. (Marquetti 2000)

Gret and Sintomer (2002) agree that the poorest areas participate most. They note the strong presence of women and young people.

Is there inequality in terms of who speaks in meetings, reflecting power relations, especially of class, gender, and cultural capital in the forms of level of education and possession of technical knowledge? According to Baiocchi the ‘poor’ and the ‘not poor’ speak equally. Women speak less than men, but experience of participation largely offsets this: women who have been involved for a number of years speak as often as men.

Do patterns of inequality emerge further up the pyramid of participation, in the election of delegates to regional forums or councillors to the COP? Marquetti found that ‘The Forum of Delegates is formed mainly by people with low qualifications, pensioners and teachers.’ According to Gret and Sintomer, the poor were less well represented at the top, though the proportion was still high. The significant factor appeared to be cultural capital, in terms of the level of education. In terms of gender, Marquetti found that ‘Slightly more women than men participate in the lowest structures, while men predominate in the Forum of Delegates and in the PB-Council.’ Baiocchi found a slight but significant trend to favour males, the better off, and the better educated. But this was largely offset by experience in participation: among those elected who had five or more years of experience of participation, class and gender disparities had largely disappeared.

Overall, the balance sheet is very positive. Fung and Wright (1999), selecting Porto Alegre as an example of an ‘Empowered Deliberative Democracy’, regard it as particularly successful in resolving the problem of equity in deliberation among unequals.

Conflict within the movement

The process of constructing a popular movement through participatory democracy is not without conflict. It is a continual process of trying to identify and constructcommon interests and reconcile conflicting interests. For example, the School Constituency project has encountered resistance from those teachers who are not in sympathy with the PT educational project, as Lucia Camini, RS secretary of state for education (and previously the president of the teachers union) explained:

We get quite a lot of resistance from the teachers that want to keep to the traditional methods where content is primary to their work. The teachers’ union also refused to work with us unless we gave teachers an increase in their salaries. We found a way out including parents and working with the universities trying to bring the schools into these new political and pedagogical proposals. But there are many teachers that do refuse any sort of change and are constantly unhappy and resistant to following a different path.5

The social movement, the local state and the national state

The PT’s vision is of a growing social movement which is independent of the local state and exercises control over it. The PT sees the present stage of the relationship between the popular movement and the executive of the local state at municipal or state level as one of co-management based on what Santos (1998, p24) calls the mutual relative autonomy of the executive and the popular movement. The strongest bases of popular power were the Forums, because they were directly based on local mobilisation and because of their status in the PB process. Abers states that ‘in all the forums, when participants did challenge the government, they usually obtained concessions’ (2000, p198). According to Santos, the COP has become increasingly assertiveness against the executive (Santos 1998, pp14, 29). Marquetti draws the following conclusion:

The PB-PoA is an institutional innovation that is capable of empowering large segments of the population, particularly, poor sectors of society that traditionally never had an active role in the definition of state policies. The empowerment of the poor is possible because the PB is an institutional mechanism that goes well beyond liberal democracy. Porto Alegre’s experience shows that it is possible for the large majority of the population to control the state, implementing a developmental and distributive economic policy that contradicts the neo-liberal paradigm. This form of state organisation is in clear contradiction to the liberal state proposed by the advocates of the market-friendly approach. (Marquetti 2000)

Relations with the national state are very different. The growing popular movement based on a radical democratic programme comes into conflict with the federal government and the class interests it reopresents. Education is a case in point, according to Lucia Camini, the RS secretary of state for education.

This is a permanent conflict in our administration. We confront the conservative elite because they say we are a government for the poor and that we only have programmes focused on social inclusion. And because we worry about building good schools in villages and rural areas, we are strongly criticised.

We face a very strong opposition from the conservative parties, from the big press, because we are accused of developing an education that motivates transformations, a different ideology and because we work with the facts of our reality, teaching the students how to think for themselves. This is a constant fight we have. We are frequently called on by the [federal] government to explain the texts we are working with, to justify why we are working this way, because the public ministry asks for a refund of the money we spent printing and preparing these educational resources. It is a constant battle exactly because we are working for the excluded classes.6

What can we learn from participatory democracy in southern Brazil?

Clearly, participatory democracy has developed in a context in Brazil which is very different from that in the UK. There is no suggestion that it can simply be translated in to a programmatic alternative here. Participatory democracy needs to be understood not as a set of procedures and structures which can be abstracted from the political vision which animates it, but as a political strategy. In that light it does have, I would argue, important lessons for us.

1. Participatory democracy works

First, it demonstrates that mass deliberative participatory democracy can work. That is tremendously important, because it shows that there is a viable, realistic, alternative to rule by technocratic managerialism, the market, and the alienating forms of liberal democracy, contrary to what not only the ideologues of neo-liberalism but also some of its more pessimistic critics would have us believe.

2. It can create a general popular interest

It demonstrates that it is possible to construct through participatory democracy a general popular interest, grounded in the local but not limited to an aggregation of particular local interests. The PB process is oriented towards the construction of the general interest at the city level because it doesn’t aim simply at each district determining its own needs – it forces each entity to place its demands in relation to others, the objective being an agreed budgetary programme for the whole city. Similarly at state level the School Constituency process is geared to the development of policy at both the level of the local school and the level of the state as a whole.

In contrast, the limited forms of participation we have experienced in Britain are confined to the local and the particular, leaving the construction of a general interest to the unresponsive structures of representative democracy.

In Britain the perspective of many of the advocates of local forms of participation is a recognition of differing interests – though in the language of social inclusion and exclusion, of interest groups and identity groups – and the belief that the opportunities for dialogue in forms of ‘participatory democracy’ can harmonise those interests.
The experience in southern Brazil is very different: participatory democracy creates common agendas informed by redistributive social justice among the subordinate classes, but it crystallises and sharpens class divisions and class conflicts between the popular classes and the political and economic elite.

3. It can exercise power over the local state

We can contrast the PT strategy of popular power over the local state with forms of ‘participatory democracy’ in Britain. These range from consultation by the local state (over for example urban development projects) to elements of low-level operational management within local government (e.g. neighbourhood forums, estate management by tenants, school governing bodies). But this is always power delegated and licensed by the state, not power over the state.7

Here we have to make a sharp distinction between the local state and the national state. Popular control over the local state is possible, but attempts to exercise similar control over the national state would provoke massive resistance – in short, a rupture, a decisive test of the relationship of forces between the classes.

4. It demonstrates a different kind of political party

The participatory democracy experience is the result of the dialectic of three elements – the social movement, the local state apparatus and the party. The interrelationship is mutually constitutive. It should direct our attention to the centrality of the question of the party and its relationship to the social movement. Much British writing about the renewal of local democracy and the creation of active citizenship has by-passed this issue, in effect accepting that democratic renewal can take place under the aegis of the existing political parties. The PT exemplifies the possibility of a different kind of political party.

5. It is creating a new social agent capable of challenging the dominant power

For the PT in RS, only a strategy of mass popular mobilisation can hold out a hope of victory. Participatory democracy can be seen fundamentally as an educational process, by which a new collective social agent – the working class and its allies – constructs itself through a process of cultural, social and political transformation.

A major limitation of the academic debate on education in Britain is the absence of a discussion of collective resistance. The experience in southern Brazil is a laboratory in which we can examine in practice the nature of the real political process of constructing alliances and common objectives – in short, the construction of hegemony within the popular movement. It enables us to see the process of creation of a new class identity and culture grounded in countless interactions at the micro level.

6. It integrates education and social action

I have said that participatory democracy is in a sense fundamentally an educational process. That provides the basis for a theory of learning – the RS government calls it the Dialectic of Knowledge – which embraces both society as a whole and the education system. The social-political process is an educational process. The educational process is a social-political process. It is a theory which connects pedagogy and politics, the classroom and the wider society, social change and individual change. It provides a radically different perspective on the relationship between class cultures and the curriculum, not to mention notions of the ‘learning society’ and ‘education for citizenship’, from those current in Britain.

In conclusion

The experience of participatory democracy in southern Brazil can provide us with a vision of an alternative and a critique of what exists here in Britain and elsewhere. Utopias and critiques are necessary, but not sufficient. In Brazil there is a political strategy for translating that vision into popular political practice. The question for us which remains to be answered is what political-educational policies and strategies, beyond the defensive, can take forward that process here.



1. This paper is a shortened and revised version of my article ‘Participatory Democracy and Education: the experience of Porto Alegre and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’, in Education and Social Justice 4 (2) pp47-64. Spring 2002.

2. For the origins of the PT, see Abers (2000) and Beynon and Ramalho (2000).

3. Rio Grande do Sul State Department of Education (2000) Principles and Directives for State Public Education / Principios y Directrices para la Educación Pública Estatal. Porto Alegre: CORAG. This is a dual language English/Spanish version of the principal publication of the School Constituency process. My translations of quotes from it are based on both language versions.

4. From an interview with the author, October 2001.

5. From an interview with the author, October 2001.

6. From an interview with the author, October 2001.

7. I have referred to the limitations of school governing bodies in England as examples of participatory democracy. A comparable but somewhat more radical experience of a form of participatory democracy in education is that of elected Local School Councils in Chicago. Since 1988, the 540 Chicago schools have been governed by LSCs, on which parents have an absolute majority. Their powers include hiring and firing of principals, spending discretionary funds, and developing and implementing strategic school development plans. According to Fung (2001), Chicago Public Schools is the most formally participatory and deliberative education department in the United States, yet he concludes that ‘the experience there falls short of the promise of empowered participatory deliberation’. (See also Ortiz 2002). A comparison with southern Brazil explains why.

The most fundamental difference is that in Chicago participatory democracy operates only at school level. There is no conception of it as the mechanism for developing a city-wide agenda, or even of collective negotiation with the Chicago Board of Education, so the LSCs are always subject to the dominance of the city council agenda, which also restricts the extent to which they can assert their own agendas at school level. There is a balance and conflict of power between the LSCs and city hall, but the powers of the LSCs have been gradually eroded (e.g. independent groups banned from providing training for LSC members; reduced powers over the selection of principals and over teaching issues).

A second difference is the limited opportunity for local participation. Each LSC has only 11 voting members, of whom only 6 parents and 2 are community representatives, though there are also monthly open meetings. A third issue is the social composition of participants. People in low income areas participate as much as or more than people from wealthier areas in the LSCs. But within any given neighbourhood those who participate have significantly more income and education (a contrary pattern to that in Porto Alegre).


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