Anastasia Kavada's concept of 'project democracy' centres democracy around action, organisation and implementation, rather than simply deliberation or decision-making. Here, she argues that the concept offers an understanding of democracy that goes beyond the familiar practices discussed in academic literature
The concept of project democracy emerged from my fieldwork with activists from the ‘movements of the squares’. These included the Occupy movement, Nuit Debout and the Athens Indignants. The inspiration for the concept came from an interview with Mehdi from Nuit Debout. While describing the movement’s organising and decision-making process, he referred to the notion of ‘democracy by project’:
I really believe that democracy by project could work […] it is in front of your eyes. People are coming to the general assembly, some people have ideas, they want to do stuff and they say ‘OK, I want to do something', 'I have a project, […] so who wants to help me to do it?’Mehdi, nuit debout
Project democracy centres around action, organisation and implementation. It is an understanding of democracy that includes the practices discussed in the academic literature on these movements: consensus decision-making, direct participation, inclusiveness and horizontality. All these are practices which themselves draw from different democratic traditions.
However, project democracy helps recast them by placing action at the centre. Our focus, therefore, does not rest solely on the decision-making process. Rather, it also examines how project democracy improves the participants’ capacity to work together for the common good in ways that neither generate nor reinforce inequalities.
Project democracy thus provides a more holistic overview of these movements’ democratic systems. It highlights that decision-making is but one component, however central, of their democratic process. This helps evaluate decision-making not just as an end in itself, but also in terms of how well it facilitates equality in action.
For instance, in some Occupy encampments, once general assemblies grew to become too conflictual and time-consuming, they slowed down action. Some of the movements’ working groups then started to operate more independently from the assembly, even though they retained many of the movement’s democratic practices within their own decision-making process. In turn, this lessened both the legitimacy of these working groups and the effectiveness of the assembly as a central decision-making body.
The smooth functioning of project democracy thus requires constant effort to combine the participants’ autonomy to develop their own projects with inclusive decision-making practices that bring all the movement together. Having clear rules about which decisions should be taken by the general assembly and which can be left to working groups can help immensely in this regard.
As a concept, project democracy has affinities with American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey's notion of creative democracy. Dewey perceived democracy as a way of life ‘controlled by personal faith in personal day-by-day working together with others’. His understanding of democracy stems from a belief in the creative potential of ordinary citizens. For Dewey, what underpins equality in democratic systems is the belief that:
every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he hasjohn dewey, Creative Democracy – The Task Before Us
In project democracy, this development also occurs through experimentation and learning by doing. Participants test ideas and develop their projects, and the system of project democracy as a whole, through trial and error. Indeed, some interviewees likened these movements to a laboratory of democracy. Other squares movements research – particularly Cristina Flesher Fominaya’s work on the 15-M Movement – also highlights this.
The conception of action within project democracy also points to an expanded understanding of political participation. This understanding encompasses the full range of activities participants can undertake within the movement. Projects can range from creating an alternative social media platform to changing the state’s economic policy to keeping the movement’s kitchens going.
This allows those lacking the confidence to voice their opinion in the general assembly to start participating in the movement by undertaking tasks that they already know how to do. This can then be a stepping stone for developing civic skills and gaining the confidence to participate in different processes.
Hence, in project democracy, political participation doesn't just mean attending assemblies. It also involves social reproduction activities, like cooking and cleaning, that focus on caring for the civic body.
In project democracy, political participation doesn't just mean attending assemblies. It also involves social reproduction activities, like cooking and cleaning, which focus on caring for the civic body
By guaranteeing that everyone will have some of their most basic needs met, these activities enable political participation for a wider range of citizens. They also ensure that ‘bodily dependency and need, hunger and the need for shelter, the vulnerability to injury and destruction’ are seen ‘as clearly political issues’, as Judith Butler puts it.
This means that activities of caring and social reproduction should not only be addressed by the democratic process. They should also be organised democratically, as Joan Tronto argues in her book Caring Democracy. This points to a more feminist understanding of action that places activities traditionally considered as private, and thus left outside democracy, in a more central position within our understanding of political participation. My chapter in Feminism and Protest Camps, edited by Catherine Eschle and Alison Bartlett, elaborates further on this.
The concept of project democracy suggests that democracy is not only about conversation, but also about action. It is not only about decision-making, but also about the implementation of decisions. And once we think about action in an expansive manner, one that includes activities that tend to be left out of politics, we can conceive of democracy beyond the parliament, the general assembly, and the community meeting. Instead, we can see it as an inherent part of everyday life, in which ordinary people work together to ensure their survival in ways that foster equality.
No.96 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series
This is excellent. It complements the similar work of Pablo Ouziel, Democracy Here and Now, UTP, 2022, on the 15 M democratic praxes in Spain. Perhaps they could discuss these issues together?
Thank you James! And yes, would love to discuss all this with Pablo Ouziel. Cristina Flesher Fominaya's work on the 15-M that I linked to in the article also points to similar patterns. It would be great if we organised a discussion on this.