“SPACES FOR CHANGE” a review (2006)

The book was published by Zed Books and edited by Andrea Cornwall and Vera Scgattan Coelho


The idea and practice of citizenship has been under attack from the ideology and practice of neoliberalism . The orthodoxies of this ideology appear as ones of economics, but in  practice have required various forms of pro-capitalist geopolitical and domestic social engineering. The equality of rights promised by citizenship is unwelcome to it and therefore must be subverted.

Such subversion is obvious in a language which has become media-dominant. Diversity for example, has been expropriated from that progressive politics which had rejected the Bolshevik model, and has been used both for marketing, treacle-smearing inequality, and, in the USA, euphemizing racial segregation. In Britain we have become consumers when it comes to public services like health and education. Under Lady Thatcher the consumer was king or queen, but who by a sleight of hand had their role as producers unrecognized or placed in a parallel universe, whereas an abiding memory of the miners’ strike is of a young miner advising supporters not to put Support stickers on their leather jackets as they would leave a stain.

Since then, when addressed  as citizens at all, it is to be frightened, warned, or scolded. This has taken place under the slogan, no rights without responsibilities. These are responsibilities to be carried out by the populace, but which are defined by the political representatives of neoliberalsim. For them the citizen’s life as citizen, is a series of tasks. They talk favourably only of ‘families’ and ‘taxpayers’ who ‘play by the rules’. This introduces a wedge of conditionality into citizenship, a conditionality that is ideological hard-line and can easily become a matter of whim. The Bolsheviks of 1917 were equal enthusiasts of such conditionality. They consciously rejected what citizenship promises in favour of the exclusivity of ‘comrade’, a distinctly provisional status: all too easy to be an ex-comrade.

At the same time, political leaders in the Western world, while lecturing the ‘Third World’ on transparency and accountability, are selective in the application of both to themselves. Transparency runs into Business Confidentiality and National Security on a regular basis. And responsibility as accountability for mistakes made is at the rhetorical level only. These leaders are increasingly concerned with developing the authority of the state while reducing its role in providing basic social services. In the West this is being done incrementally, while it attempts to enforce this neoliberal agenda in poorer parts of the world.

This reduction in the role of the state, enforced or eagerly embraced, has made for a far greater space for ‘civil society’, which has largely taken on the mantle of being ‘a good thing’ as against the bad state, corrupt and oppressive in the poorer parts of the world; and a ‘good thing’ in certain roles in the West. These certain roles do not include Trade Unions despite their being the largest organisations within what purports to be ‘civil society’. As with the Bolsheviks, recognition of Trade Unions as autonomous organizations is anathema to neoliberalism with its ‘consumers’.

But the development of ‘consumer’ organizations which lay a claim to go beyond these limits to become citizen organizations has been largely ignored by most forms of progressive politics, except for worrying about the state supported power being given to faith charities. Most of all there has been no exhaustive look at organisations of ‘civil society’ from the perspective of their own practice when it comes to citizenship. It’s rare to hear any self-analysis by such organisations, and the Southall Black Sisters are an exception when they talk of the pressures and dangers of professionalizing non-party campaigning organisation, themselves included.

It is in these circumstances that the Claiming Citizenship series from Zed Books is especially welcome. The most recent of these books  is Spaces for Change, edited by Andrea Cornwall and Vera Schattan Coelho which looks at those ‘civil society’ organisations that take the form of participatory democracy, usually on a local scale, and often with the support of local state institutions. The strength of the book is that it does not sell a model or panacea. Instead it looks at examples of such groups, mostly in Latin America where they are strongest, but also Asia and Africa where they struggle, as well as in Canada and the UK, from the point of view of how they work and don’t work, and why this should be the case. In Marian Barnes’ chapter on the UK for example she talks of the practical problems of meetings which are rarely mentioned in progressive political discourse. The Community Health Forum she describes had to take account of poor public transport (and in unfunded cases, its expense) for where meetings might be held.

Many of the cases studied, in the book, like this UK Forum, involve citizen organization concerned with health, not just health ‘issues’ but how far health services fulfil the demands of citizenship.  Examples from  Brazil to Canada show that while health care is seen as a basic right, participatory organisations are not just aware, but are capable of making ‘tough decisions’ when resources are finite. In an essay on the working of an official inquiry into health care provision in Canada – the Romanow Commission –and the Citizen Dialogues that were part of it, the writers talk of how these Dialogues “Belied elite views that citizens are incapable of nuanced understandings of issues on health care reform and unwilling to male tough trade-offs.” In an age where leaders like  Mr Blair have made a fetish of leadership, the necessity of the heroic one, or the heroic few who can make tough decisions, this citizen capability is truly subversive.

At the same time the book has its own all-too-real provisos. One common criticism of such participatory organizing would be that their existence is a mask for real power since the resources they control are limited. Dennis Rodgers, writing about initiatives in Buenos Aires is unconditionally clear on this. But he also describes the particular nature of party politics there, that is a s a decentralized mass of local associations and social networks which made for the successes of such organizations being short-lived. Writing of South Africa John J. Williams talks of ‘ordinary people’ serving “mainly as endorsers of pre-designed planning programmes and objects of administrative manipulation in which bureucratic elites impose their truncated version of ‘community participation’ on particular communities”

In other parts of the world, Sri Lanka and India are given as examples, such organizations are not guaranteed to overcome existing class and cultural hierarchies. By themselves they cannot create citizenship. Describing watershed development committees in India, selection is usually an informal process even while taking place in formal meetings; where women are selected by project bureaucrats for example it is likely to be on the basis of their socio-economic status. Writing of South Africa, Williams talks of the group dynamics existing between citizen members of health fora, and professionals who are usually white. This particular dynamic does not have to be negative however. There are profession and  professionals. And it is here most of all that the nature of the meetings of such organizations themselves is so important. Describing Bangladeshi Community Groups, and how intimidating the participatory spa ce can be for the poor and excluded. “How they talk and what they talk about may be perceived by professionals as scarcely coherent or relevant; their participation may be viewed by the powerful as chaotic, disruptive and chaotic.”  In this instance, it is the impatience of the professional that has to be countered by him/herself with the impetus fort such a process coming from the poor and excluded for whom the issues may be literally ones of life and death,

The book  does not go in for wishful thinking, but its description of Brazilian health councils shows the gains that can be made and how much this has involved  the history of such initiatives, the persistence of many different people to make them work. Participatory budgeting did not come out of nowhere; The World Social Forum having its origin in Porto Alegre is not coincidental. Williams, continuing his theme of administrative manipulation says “Consent for governance is not earned through rigorous political debates of the merits or demerits of specific social programmes; rather political acquiescence is manufactured through skilful manipulation by a host of think-tanks, self-styled experts, opinion polls and media pundits.” To which one can only say, that’s not just South Africa, believe me! Not just that, but that the participatory initiatives described in this book do offer possible alternatives to this pessimism.

The power to make decisions an d the ability to make tough ones, out lined in the history of the Romanow Com mission surely has a dynamic of its own. Coming from different starting points, Castoriades and the industrial worker in the 1950s, and Paulo Freire some years later with the starting point of education, repudiated both Bolshevik and top-down social democratic politics with their insistence on the importance of citizen decision-making. What’s more, as the Brazilian experience shows such organizations which can  begin with a relatively restricted remit (though not if exclusively single ‘project’ tied) may give rise to forms of engagement that spill beyond their boundaries. They offer the possibility as one Brazilian participant puts it, to be “the collective intelligence of society.”