Movement, Mobilization and Participation


In our last post we discussed democratic and ecological cities. We emphasized that a democratic transition demands changes in both the political and social sphere. In this post we want to look more closely at the implications of this, and discuss the pros and cons of different approaches to movement building, social mobilization and participatory processes.

Participatory processes in four different settings

One way to categorize social mobilization through participatory processes is to look at different settings in which these processes take place. We can identify at least four different settings:

  • The setting of protests and advocacy
  • The setting of consultations on local development processes, conflict issues, etc.
  • The economic setting coupled to local communities and regions
  • The municipal, political democracy setting

For social mobilization and endeavours to bring about fundamental social change, it is important to give attention to all of these different settings. Mobilization through participatory processes are always valuable and can, in their own way, contribute to a democratic transition of society. Different types of mobilization can interplay with each other, but each one of them also have their limits. A participatory democratic process can also be “spread out” on different settings and therefore consist of several processes at the same time.

Image: A postcards with greetings from the cooperative and ecological economy. Postcard from Dollars and Sense.

Furthermore, there can be varying opportunities to catalyze participatory process in these settings at different times. For example, it’s possible to engage in the economy even when work in the protest and advocacy setting is difficult. Or, if the political situation makes it difficult to work within the economic or political democracy setting, it might be necessary to focus quite unilaterally on the protest and advocacy setting. In most cases it is desirable, however, to work through parallel and connected processes.

A four-step program for change

Below is a draft of a possible four step program for democratic transition that involves social mobilization and participatory democracy within all the above-mentioned settings.

1. Circle in possible conflicts and engage in the battle!

We have to engage in current issues that people care about. Do we see challenges or issues that the public is not aware of at present? Then it is our task to explain how the issues they are worried about are connected to the challenges and issues we see. People are concerned with very different causes and it is always possible to make some kind of connection.

When there is a conflict that engages people, they also tend to become more open to discuss and question society at large. For this reason we should at least try to discover what conflicts it’s possible to inspire local engagements through. Maybe it’s a question of what the local school should do, collective transport, the possibilities for paid work, or maybe some services threatened by closure or privatization.

It is advantageous to look at the municipality as a whole and try to see the connections between challenges in the city and the countryside. In the city it is also worthwhile to look at the specific challenges and problems of different neighborhoods.

2. To make use of opportunities for participation!

Even if we don’t live in a direct democracy today, there are arenas for participation and -- if we want to -- mobilization in today’s society. There is, for example. a diversity of local associations, tenants’ unions, community associations, trade unions, sports clubs etc. A local association can have a limited purpose, but can still be be an arena where different issues potentially can be raised and discussed. The municipality also frequently invites citizens for consultation on different plans and initiatives. This creates opportunities for narrow, but still valuable forms of participatory democracy.

Even if the greatest power is concentrated where money and entrenched economic interests reside -- for example among entrepreneurs, in the municipal bureaucracy or among sectors of the local business community -- this does not prevent associations and other popular initiatives with less power at the outset creating interest, opinions and fomenting a fighting spirit among the public. This can happen in phases or, under certain circumstances, in leaps and can shake the power balance when it comes to who gets to formulate the problems and make the decisions in society. This can in turn open up possibilities for more far-reaching changes, both in the economic and the political sphere.

3. Build a democratic economy!

We have already mentioned that it is important and possible to get involved in the development of cooperatives and democratic enterprises. The challenge is to not only be involved in single cooperative projects, but to work so that, when combined, such projects can prepare the ground for a new economy.

In the new report “Cities Building Community Wealth” from Democracy Collaborative, it is discussed how cities and municipalities can build a new economy. Here, two approaches to economic development are juxtaposed: One that focuses on “community wealth” (read “democratic economy” or “democratic transition”) in contrast to a “traditional” approach that protects the dominant power relations in society. The picture below briefly describes these two approaches to economic development:

Whether we call our approach “community wealth” or “democratic transition” there are, according to this report, six central strategies we should explore, which are summed up in the next image.

The images above points to different local opportunities in the economic sphere aimed at encouraging social mobilization and inducing participatory democratic processes which can challenge the power balance in society. By altering the local and regional economy we can, in the longer run, change the fundamental power relations in society, a process which may also establish the preconditions for the “post-capitalism” we discussed in an earlier post.

4. Participate in elections on a program for change!

In order to make several of the changes we have sketched above in the economic sphere, and if we want to develop more lasting forms of participation in politics, we have to change the political process as it is today. Communalism, presented in previous posts, is a way to approach local politics and the political dimensions of the social ecological challenge. It can said to be a political theory of a democratic social transition.

Here are two articles that discuss how to get engaged in politics from a communalist perspective, as well as examining what kind of electoral program would connect these issues. In “What Would Real Democracy Look Like”, Camilla Hansen provides an overview of different democratic initiatives, institutions and mechanisms employed today, and their strengths and weaknesses. In “Occupy Local Government?” Sveinung Legard argues that contemporary movements against austerity policies and neoliberal politics would benefit from participating in municipal elections. Also take a look at the 2007 electoral program of Democratic Alternative in Oslo, one that illustrates some of the ways in which environmental, economic and democratic challenges can be tackled locally from a social ecological perspective. 

This is the fifth of a series of posts that was originally written for a study group on social ecology in Sweden. Read the first four posts here:

Post 1: The Fundamentals of Social Ecology

Post 2: Future Scenarios

Post 3: Economic Contradictions and New Opportunities

Post 4: Cooperatives, Commons and Municipal Management

Post 5: Democratic and Ecological Cities

If you want to organize a study group on this series yourself, here are some questions you might discuss based on the material in this post.


  • What initiatives, demands or projects would be relevant and pressing to include in a local electoral program for a democratic transition if you were to participate in the municipal elections where you live?
  • Which local conflicts are important for you to get engaged in? How could you contribute to making the connection between different challenges and issues?
  • What do you think of the strategies and principles to build “community wealth” that the Democracy Collaborative emphasize?
  • What potentials do you see in the institutions and mechanisms for democratization that Camilla Hansen discusses in her article?
  • What do you think of the possibilities to participate in local elections as a way of propelling a democratic transition of society?