The Fear Beyond Participation – One for All, All for One?

Posted on September 23, 2011 by


“Sometimes, all-inclusive democracy has to be avoided at all costs. “

This is the starting point of “the Nightmare of Participation”, giving as an introduction a provocative and strong position because of which I started to turn the pages and click frenetically in order to understand and to know more. As a result, the following text attempts to reveal the oppositions and the contradictions of both thesis: PRO and ANTI participation, playing as I can – and inspired by the notion of the author – the role of the “Uninvited Outsider”. The firsts lines presented do not pretend to present solutions: this is the genesis of an ongoing reflexion.

Markus Miessen proposes a scale of understanding while he employs or defines “participation”. “Participation” is a global phenomenon invented by pro-democrats to denounce the way democracy is applied nowadays, playing with guiltiness on masses: the message of participation is “you could be involved in the democratic debate”, “you should be involved”, “you want to be involved but you can’t because the system itself does not include you in the debate”, “you have the power to change things but the decision is yours to decide to do it”. Because this is why participation is made for: to change.

By offering a tribune to participative thoughts and building his publications as a participative project (as well as reflecting on architecture through workshops or round table exercises), he in fact points the hypocrisy included in the definition of participation itself. Participation in a democratic process can not exist as it intends to because participation cannot be neither globalized nor representative of all the actors, in an exhaustive way.


“Participation is often read through a romantic notions of negotiation, inclusion and democratic decision-making. However, it is precisely this often unquestioned mode of inclusion (used by politicians as never-ending campaigns for retail politics) that does not produce significant results, as criticality is challenged by the concept of majority.”


Once again, participation is used or brought under the light when there is an apparent reason to stand against an idea or a system ongoing in the reality. The story of consensus prove that ideas are sometimes loosing their force by being negotiated and adapted to the common agreement, through the filter of simplification.

For Alain Badiou, consensus is the fusing of what is and what can be. Using what IS as a departure thesis to be transformed and modified to create a better WILL BE – if we consider that oneself is always well thinking, as if the notions of good and bad were submitted to an universal understanding (isn’t it why religions have been created? To define and frame morality?).

What is the problem with participation? To be less efficient? this is a fact: More people are involved into the process of decision making, longer is the process. Because there is negotiation. But negotiation is necessary: participatory voice needs debate and a space for it as it implies paradox and contradictions in the proposals: as architect, we are often confronted to the exercise of the round table, forced to recognize that the good ideas come often from someone else after a series of bad ones brainstormed, understood as hypothesis studied through the possible implications and consequences taken in order to focus and precise the rational solutions: a project is by definition a consensus.

And as negotiation is also based on communication, the considered best ideas come often from the best communicant: ideas need a porte-parole. But what if we avoid the negotiation? The possibilities offered by internet 2.0 permit to think the round table in a different way: a simple tribune, showing a simple tendency of the anonymous multiplicity.

The recent success of the Pirates in Berlin shows how citizens can be attracted by the idea of a direct democracy, because it is fair and seducing to think about reestablishing the direct dialogue. But the problem still remains in the process of decision making: having ideas or statistics, ideally numerous ones, coming directly from participative citizens doesn’t explain how those voices are then transformed into a project or a decision, ideally a good one. The decision-making or project-making process implies different phases: a first craft composed by the multiplicity of ideas and opinions, a first choice based on majority to recompose the multiplicity into group of ideas, re-crafting those proposals, submitting them to the vote and a last moment of final choice in which people are excluded from the democratic process as the transformation from raw ideas needs specific abilities to be presented as a final product. Who will be the representant of the final product? Who is making the choices? The majority? Isn’t it what we already have in western democracies? Aren’t the democracies as we know them now issued from a first desire of direct-democracy or the idea of a greek agora but resulting from the necessity of the addition of complicated filters of various institutions in charge to check what the other ones have produced and to validate or invalidate a choice, adding new tools and new rules with time to respond to specifics problems and not questioning / destroying the whole system each time it presents a weakness? Isn’t it how democracies finally become transformed and somehow disconnected from the direct relation power-people?

From what I learnt from my architectural practice, while I began a project – to be understood as a spatial solution to a series of “problems” sometimes contradictories – I was taught that as long as solutions are not appearing by themselves according to the main concept a project needs to be developed, it means that the concept itself is not good enough, and with it, the project as a building can not be considered as good neither: when you have to spend money in hiding the defects a project presents before being built – hiding decorative facade, addition of complicated details, playful lights… – the convenient reflex should be to restart from the beginning, or to assume the mistakes. I remember a picture of a crack in the raw concrete of the Salk Institute designed by Louis Kahn: instead of plastering or making up the failure, Louis Kahn asked the worker to sign it without shame: mistakes are human.

Visions on democracy… or how the politic system should be… It reminds me the divergent points of view of two known philosophers, not so young now: Plato defined society as divided into 3 categories: the laborer, the warrior and the thinkers. He deeply believed that to maintain a balance in society, each individual should maintain his position inside each category – and that’s how the notion of Justice appears -, in other terms, the decision makers should be the ones who have acknowledge: the thinkers / the philosophers – the specialists. Plato was convinced about the necessity of an oligarchy or aristocracy where knowledge and reason dominate. For Aristotle, his fellow, there are only 2 categories of people divided into rich and poor. Aristotle thinks that each individual has the same ability to think and that “rationality” or “super-rationality” is issued from the combination of individual rationalities, including the notion of opposition and conflicts, becoming an important part of the democratic process. But Aristotle warns us against one of the derivative consequence of such a system: demagogy, giving the illusion to people that they can really govern but using trust people have in such a democratic power to manipulate masses in the direction they really want and satisfy at the same time individualities, avoiding revolts and conflicts.



And those two positions seem extremely contemporary. My question is: what do we learn from it?



The Nightmare of Participation, Markus Miessen, Sternberg Press, October 2010

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