Thoughts on Community Participation

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Some considerations regarding the concept of ‘Community Participation’:

There needs to be  careful balance in the theoretical discussion; in particular I would be cautious regarding the following:

1.1.Entering into any discussion of participatory developmental strategies or participatory democracy. The problem here is that these sorts of theories fail to acknowledge the fundamental antagonism within societies, and take it for granted that democracy or participation is necessary and what is needed. Its part of a wider problem with the notion of participation itself – it assumes that the ‘correctness’ of underlying power structures in society; it privileges a certain set of discursive knowledge practices [specifically that ‘participation’ can be a ‘domain’ under which expert knowledge is operationalized]; the idea is tangential from that of dealing with e.g. class antagonism as it creates a dichotomy between those who can participate, or do participate, and those who do not; ‘participation’ is premised on a notion that everyone must enter into the ‘mainstream’ set of discursive and narrative practices [which has an economic problem at its heart]; finally, it assumes that the underlying structural problem is that of ‘participation’ itself.

1.2.When we begin to discuss ‘community’ participation caution is needed: my own feeling on this is that ‘community’ participation becomes – and is – an object for commodity fetishism; we also need to be clear about what we mean – are we talking about bottom-up driven processes [this is again, problematic because firstly, it creates a false dichotomy as above; secondly, by positing participation as the vehicle for communities, instead of ‘real action,’ it generates a condition in which the opportunity and ability to generate change is subverted; and thirdly, it turns participatory action into node for exploitation].

2.       Given the above, I wouldn’t however, completely reject the notion of ‘community participation’ per se. Rather – were I you – the following would be my plan of attack:

2.1.What are the conditions under which ‘community participation’ has arisen: there are several ways I think this can be tackled:

2.1.1.        Neoliberalism and the public management paradigms have generated a situation in which social life has become equated with economic life; what is necessary to understand here is that far from there being a diminishment of state intervention, that intervention has become ‘perverted’ into systems which are driven primarily to ensure that everyone becomes part of the economic modality that we currently live under – this is firstly, because capital must have the maximum opportunity for the development of markets; and secondly, neoliberalism and the public management paradigm requires complete regulation of the individual through disciplinary practices, and these can only be operated on the community or individual if they are captured within the ‘mainstream’ system. Thus the operation of ‘participation’ is NOT a move towards democracy or participation in the ordinary sense of the word, but is rather a move towards the capture and control of individuals and their social environment within the operating practices of neoliberalism.

2.1.2.        With the blurring of social/economic life under neoliberalism relations between social members and structures (such as communities), as well as the state, take the form of transactions – the problem of ‘community participation’ is that it is – inherently – the attempt to create a transactional relationship in which the community ‘participates’ through various mechanisms, practices and discourses, with other social agents and the state: however, and this is what the use of the word ‘participation’ should highlight for us, there is the creation of a separate group, ‘community’ discrete and distinct from other social agents and from the state as a whole; and that this group must interact; as we live under a neoliberal hegemony, this necessarily takes the form of commodity transaction – this demonstrates a second tier of operation, in which both ‘community’ and ‘participation’ themselves are commodified for the purposes of entry into capital exchange systems [see Marx’s discussion of surplus value exchange; all that I’m doing here is applying it to the situation at hand].

2.1.3.        An analysis of the concept of community is really needed: what is community? Who is community? How do communities arise? How do we distinguish one from the other? What are the spatial and geographical relations of communities? Without going into too much detail, I would argue that the idea of community itself is rather shallow and that instead of engaging or using the concept we should instead look at why the concept gets used, and the answer here is that it becomes beneficial for the promotion of existing structural power relations in society: in particular, it creates a fragmentation which can be exploited by capital through its various mechanisms; it forms the foundation for the creation of false consciousness and thus alienation and prevents organized action across a variety of actions – e.g. people working at one factory from different communities will find it increasing difficult to undertake the formation of unions [this is a weak example].

2.1.4.        Participatory action we should understand as being itself inappropriate: the very idea is reactionary – and arguably counter-revolutionary. Consider the following question: participation assumes a period of non-participation in time, followed by the event of participation; but why is there now participation – why do we now engage on a concentrated, focused set of actions. In this respect it is useful to think of participatory actions as ‘events’ and necessarily ‘actions’ in the strict sense of the word: the problem then, becomes that the structure of what we call ‘community participation’ is undertaken in such a way that it is an ‘event’ without root or cause: it is becomes amoral [in the philosophical sense, not in the sense of immorality], aethical and divorced from historical realities. There is also an underlying assumption that the process of participation is neutral itself; there is a complete failure to acknowledge – and this is deliberate, make no mistake – that the methodology and ontological basis [what it is] of participation and the form of participation are based within their genealogies: i.e. participation is not simply participation. For example, in South Africa, the genealogical roots of ‘community development’ lie in three areas [this is my thinking on this]: firstly, it is a metamorphoses of the notion of service delivery, in which individuals become passive receptors for services – it is has ‘mutated’ and now ‘participation’ and not ‘delivery’ is the understood instrument, but the underlying logic is the same; secondly, it takes place under the theoretical climate that the ‘realization of rights’ or ‘access to rights’ or ‘engagement’ [all of which are partially what we mean by ‘participation’] is what is needed for people to live meaningful and worthwhile lives – this is an outright liberal notion, and contains the exact same reasoning as the idea that equalization of access to opportunities actuates with actualization of opportunities, rather than (i) understanding that equalization of outcomes is what is important and (ii) that no positive [positive in the sense of direct intervention] action is required, only the elimination of barriers or obstacles. Community development is thus understood as a barrier-removing mechanism that aims to provide a more equitable means of accessing opportunities, but does not address the outcomes themselves; this is a legacy of the sort of liberal programme engaged in by intellectual narratives post-1994 and the strong neoliberal paradigm that arose from 1996 onwards. Finally, it has its roots in the Apartheid and Colonial notion of ‘engagement with the native’: the idea that the ‘black man’ [gender-sensitivity aside] requires a process to achieve the intellectual capacity and means of accessing opportunities as the ‘colonist’ or ‘white man’ [again, gender] [incidentially it is also arguable that the idea of ‘community’ in the sense which this idea of ‘community participation’ generates is linked to the kind of ethnic-tribalistic thinking that pervaded the practices of Apartheid, e.g. the allocation of ‘Native Reserves’ based on linguistic [‘ethnic’] underpinnings]; of course, it has become more sophisticated in its presentation and actually subverts the narrative of Apartheid to achieve its own ends; e.g. thus communities were disadvantaged by Apartheid and a process is required to ‘fix’ the problem. This completely ignores that the problems are fundamentally structural, systemic and ongoing i.e. this colonial/Apartheid-mindset has been maintained.

2.2.The second part of what needs to be done is to ‘chart a course’ which acknowledges the above, but provides a means of allowing us – as the SACP and Revolutionary Theoreticians – to move forward. I would suggest that the following is perhaps part of the appropriate response here:

2.2.1.        We need to resist the temptation, or the tendency, to subject the underlying issues around ‘community participation’ to a managerial-based regime. It is difficult not to become engaged in a mode of managing participation to ensure democratic outcomes. Even if these are self-managed by such ‘communities’ the issue of management itself is exceptionally problematic as it generates a knowledge/power modality that becomes embedded within any process – this immediately inverts the intended logic behind what we are doing.

2.2.2.        The notion of ‘community’ as distinct and discrete needs to be rigorously exorcised from the discussion [see re: comments about community above]. The kind of model that should be looked at is one that does two things: firstly, it moves away from the community as the site of struggle towards the real source of antagonism: that based on the relations to material means of production and class conflict [amongst other factors]; and secondly, one that acknowledges the continuum of social society based on the fact that human beings are biological creatures, and that social features, institutions and events arise out of historical processes.

2.2.3.        The role of agency and – more importantly – ‘collective agency’ needs to be reasserted. When we begin to talk about community participation, we assume that there is this static thing called community; the state and that other social agents are static – this simply isn’t the case [historical materialism demonstrates this]. Social institutions, events and organizations arise out of collective actions by agents [i.e. individuals] embedded within a system of autonomous discursive structures and operating within, part of and influencing a historical process. In reasserting agency we are claiming that the individual [perhaps the free development of the individual alla Gotha Programme and Grundrisse] is a site of struggle; in reasserting ‘collective agency’ we are asserting that the collective sum of agents – not an abstracted notion of community, but dynamic manifestation that results from the interaction of a collective or group of agents, operating within certain socio-economic conditions – is also a site of struggle: the key idea here is agency itself – the notion that people are embedded in the world, not separated out and in need of intervention through e.g. participation. This embedness means that change must be undertaken on the basis of agents as embedded i.e. that structural issues must be addressed. To use a very bad example, giving someone standing at the traffic lights R10 is failing to acknowledge that they are agents, that there is a reality in which they operate and live; acknowledgment of them in an authentic manner as agents and sites of struggle requires us to firstly, tackle the underlying base structural issues creating the objective conditions under which this person now lives their lives; and secondly, requires a disciplined stance of not assisting the person on the basis that authentic life and being-for-itself can only happen through the self, through the agent themselves. In a similar manner, community participation will never achieve its stated aims as it firstly, is an interventionist approach [see below] and develops a lived-world in which the agent cannot ‘claim’ authenticity. This is really just Marx’s [and Lukac’s] notion of false-consciousness: lack of authenticity is a material condition for the individual where false consciousness has come to operate in a hegemonic fashion.

2.2.4.        What is really needed is an approach that does three things: firstly, we need to understand that interventions such as service delivery or community participation are not conducive to the liberation of Africans, and blacks in particular, as they do not address either the structural nature of problems or the issue of alienation; thus, secondly, programmes/policies must be orientated in such a manner that they aim to address alienation and the kind of false-consciousness talked about and I suspect that an authentic awareness of people’s own material existence and the conditions of such existence, understood in the context of exploitation, is probably the method for achieving that; and finally, there must be an aggressive tackling of the structural, epistemological, hegemonic and discursive structures that underlie the material conditions under which people live. Neither of these is solvable by participation: alienation requires self-awareness and tackling the structural features underlying the problem(s) needs political action; tackling the structural issues is perhaps easier to articulate: structures must be broken, removed, transformed etc. such that they not only create the conditions under which false-consciousness cannot originate, but that they are also available for when authentic action can take place.

2.3.The third element that should perhaps be tackled is to consider the Party’s own work in this regard; my thoughts on this are the following:

2.3.1.        This idea of the struggle for progressive moral values is quite important, but especially the notion of ‘liberating’ community life – I would say that this has a lot to do with the promotion of ‘collective agency’: it is not simply a thing of ‘empowering’ people in ‘communities’ – the issue is a lot deeper.

2.3.2.        The Party discussion document [Road…] highlights the issue of the production of socially necessary “use values” – this is something that is a fundamentally structural problem and an agency-problem; no amount of participatory action is going to do anything here. Firstly, the exploitation of women in domestic labour relations is derivable from a lack of constituted ability to act as an authentic agent; is linked to structural mechanisms including patriarchy and the value of such labour as being virtually null in terms of capitalist exchange. How do we address this: how do we allow women to be able to authentically claim their labour-time; how do we address patriarchal relationships and how do we move away from labour as being a value-mechanism for exchange. The last question I think is the most important one and I am tempted to suggest that instead of community participation, we begin to think about something that has a different foundation, in which all labour-time is equivalent, regardless of whether it is domestic or conventionally productive [although domestic labour is productive labour in the proper sense of the term]. Secondly, there’s this issue of ‘community work’ which must be understood through the lens of labour-relations and labour-time as is the case with domestic labour. This is where I think the Party’s theoretical position could be expanded: and when we talk about communities [as much as I dislike the term] we begin to actually think about the relations of labour at the individual and collective level, as well as socially necessary commodities. This moves away us away from the problems of community participation, which – as you can see – doesn’t address the issue of labour-utilization itself; I think this is where our interventions can begin to create self-awareness and address the issue of false consciousness.

2.3.3.        Where I think the Road to Socialism is wrong, is this idea of municipalities working “hand-in-hand” with “mobilized communities”: I’m of the opinion that we need to avoid this kind of distinction-creation, and begin to understand the municipality not as a discrete object [as an economic thing] but as continuous with ‘communities’: in this sense we should begin to understand and treat these as interlinked elements of the same whole.