Beyond “Point-of-Production” Organizing: Participatory Budgeting, Worker Cooperatives, and Left Praxis

An overview of PB and workers cooperatives:

Participatory budgeting and workers cooperatives are some of the best institutions being used to build egalitarian, democratic political structures that can transcend national rightwing forces. Participatory budgeting (PB) humbly started in Porto Alegre and has since inspired Leftist political movements across the globe, unleashed political agency, and revolutionized conceptions about the role of the citizenry in affecting everyday life. PB first arrived in America at Chicago’s 49th Ward and thereafter spread to New York City, Vallejo, California, and many other cities.[1] When citizenry gain democratic access to funds, they grow increasingly excited about allocating those funds to other participatory institutions, especially workers cooperatives.  

Thus, it is jarring to see many prominent Leftists–be they prominent left-wing writers like Bhaskar Sunkara or other orthodox Marxist academics more generally–condemn participatory budgeting and workers cooperatives as either unproductive or even petit-bourgeois and neoliberal.

These critics usually have three basic arguments for condemning PB and workers cooperatives. Their first argument rests on the idea that organizing workers at the point of production is the most effective form of praxis. It deems organizing universities, urban centers, or housing complexes as less effective tasks, especially when compared to organizing directly at the factory or place producing material things. The second argument states that the history of neoliberal elites coopting participatory budgeting to normalize neoliberalism belies its reactionary character and unworthiness.[2] The third argument, employed by many orthodox Marxists especially, assert that Karl Marx himself deemed workers cooperatives as utterly futile forces of resistance in a capitalist economy.

This article sets out to debunk these arguments and reveal them as emblematic of a strain of defeatism that has infected certain strains of the Left. It showcases modern cases of PB and workers cooperatives to reveal their inherent radical potential, ability to withstand the influence of the neoliberal elite and avoid cooptation, and thus forge the path for a more equitable world. It also notes that even when PB is coopted by the state–because, after all, all sorts of radical ideas can always be seized for reactionary purposes–its inherent radicalism often lurks beneath and manages to challenge the neoliberalism being imposed on it. Before making these claims, however, it first explains these aforementioned Left critiques in order to better understand and challenge them.


Understanding dominant Left viewpoints:

Though Jacobin Magazine does not enforce an explicit, uniform editorial line, its overall hostility to PB and workers cooperatives has influenced the parameters for much of American Left discourse. On January 7th, 2017, Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of Jacobin who greatly influences the direction of the magazine, held an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum on Reddit for people to ask questions about the niceties of socialism and the state of the Left in the Age of Trump. One particular question brought up prospects for PB and more city-oriented activism, stating:

What do you think of arguments about the location of class struggle and organizing shifting somewhat to issues of urban life—resisting “accumulation by dispossession,” etc. like David Harvey makes in Rebel Cities? It seems like participatory budgeting and right to the city arguments are more intuitive to people than they used to be.

Sunkara responded by proclaiming:

I very much don’t see participatory budgeting as a productive use of time at the moment, and generally I think we should still remember that workers have the most power and social weight at the point of production.[3]

In light of this statement, it makes sense that Jacobin has almost no articles explicitly dedicated to exploring participatory budgeting, but plenty dedicated explicitly to examining–and even debating–the Sanders movement.

Connor Kilpatrick, another prominent editorial member at Jacobin, similarly emphasizes the strength of “point of production” organizing and condemns the supposed fixation with activism on college campus. On Twitter, he praised an interview of Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher from the Spring of 1967 in which Deutscher condemns the New Left’s fixation on race and decries the milieu’s supposed relegation within the university. When Deutscher is asked about the New Left’s attention to “oppressed minorities,” he largely dismisses attention given to race, stating that, “As long as this [New Left] opposition is not based on a stable class in society… it is largely ineffective, no matter how important it is at the present moment.”[4] He then claims that any future anti-war protests of New Left students and intellectuals would be futile because, unlike dockworkers or other industrial workers closer to the “point of production,” they would be unable to stop arm shipments to Vietnam.[5]

It must be noted that Deutscher’s political assessment turned out to be horribly wrong. In reality, labor stoppages and/or disruptions turned out to be almost nonexistent throughout the 60s and 70s and thus utterly ineffective in helping end the war. The conservative, pro-Cold War attitudes of most American unions actually aided the efforts of the Vietnam War. For instance, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) passed a convention in supporting the Vietnam War in 1966 and AFL-CIO President George Meany was vocally pro-war.[6] The fact that it was actually New Left college activism that helped change public opinion about the Vietnam War reveals the bankruptcy of Kilpatrick and Deutscher’s critique.[7]

Along with PB, workers cooperatives are also roundly condemned as being unable to influence change in a capitalist system. In The North Star editor John Reimann’s response to my article on the mixed legacy of Sewer Socialists and their occasional support for workers cooperatives and the “Cooperative Commonwealth,” he references Karl Marx to condemn these experiments in worker organization, stating:

As for worker cooperatives: There is a reason that Karl Marx opposed them. It might make for a more pleasant workplace environment, but such enterprises must swim in the sea of the capitalist economy, and when that economy goes into a downturn or a crisis the cooperatives must respond as any other business does, or it will go under. As far as the worker/owners – my experience is that they are driven to think more in terms of owners… than on organizing a fight against capitalism itself.[8]

Local effort to improve direct democracy–be it vis a vis assemblies or directly at the workplace–are ultimately condemned for their ineffectiveness. Rather, these Leftists advocate for more “traditional forms of left-wing organization,” namely wielding worker power to build stronger unions and a more solidly left-wing state to fight back against neoliberal hegemony.[9]

Yet, building stronger unions and a social democratic state–strategies we should all explicitly support–are by no means mutually exclusive with other types of political strategy. These views of PB and workers cooperatives fail to see the these two institutions first and foremost as tools that can improve governance. The question thus arises: What type of governance? If the Left chooses to retreat from trying to influence PB and workers cooperatives, it will be seized by the Right in its attempt to improve neoliberal governance. Conversely, if it chooses to engage with them, it can abide by the syndicalist vision of “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”[10] Instead of succumbing to defeatism or inaction until the ever-vague ripening of “international conditions,” it can actively and immediately shape the world surrounding it.


The radical history and implications of  PB and workers cooperatives:

PB first originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as an initiative of the Workers Party (PT). As Brazilian sociologist José Eduardo Utzig notes in his essay “Participatory budgeting of Porto Alegre,” Brazilian PB grew out of a left-wing milieu that was oxygenated after the fall of Brazil’s military dictatorship. He notes:

Although it had an array of Marxist groups among its founders, the PT (Workers Party) was created as an alternative to the traditional leftist view of the communist parties in Brazil. Moreover, the main sources of members and leaders of the PT were the new movements… that became strong in the fight for freedom, better wages, and better quality of life by the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties. These movements, which emerged in the struggle against the Brazilian military dictatorship, held democratic values but at the same time, influenced by a diffuse traditional socialist ideology, were highly suspicious of the institutions of representative democracy, especially of the parliament…[11]

In other words, from its very own humble beginnings, PB emerged from strong left wing movements that were sharply critical of state power. Yet, as Utzig notes, “The process of participatory budgeting cannot be well understood out of the context of the political and social history of Porto Alegre.”[12] Thus, it is also important to note that Brazil more broadly, but Porto Alegre more specifically, had a rich tradition of anarchism. Italian and German anarchists immigrated to Porto Alegre and shaped its political landscape throughout the early 20th century, leading to numerous Brazilian anarchists being present at the country’s first Brazilian Labor Congress.[13] One can not talk about Porto Alegre PB without acknowledging these radical political currents.

Yet, radical ideas of all stripes can always be seized for reactionary purposes. In their book Popular Democracy: The Paradox of Participation, sociologists Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza explain how neoliberals are able to adapt PB for their own purposes. They complement Utzig, who argues that

Neoliberalism supports social participation in voluntary groups within society as long as it does not result both in pressures for expanding the state and in interventions that affect the efficiency of the market economy. In other words, neoliberalism supports social participation as long as it does not become a political Activity.[14]

Neoliberals could support PB so long as they could also ensure that the process did not challenge free market governance or the structure of the economy. Thus, there have been notable cases where PB steering committees (i.e. the officials in charge of administrating the process) have selected ballot questions suited to the city’s political interests, thus proving the process not to be centered around unleashing direct democracy, but meeting predetermined political goals.[15]

After visiting Porto Alegre, many Leftists viewed PB as “part of a renewed leftist project, one that overcame the authoritarian limits of authoritarian and bureaucratic socialism… [and] showed that leftists could govern well, succeed electorally, and offer a compelling alternative to technocratic good governance based… on social justice principles.”[16] Yet, neoliberals continued to adapt it as well. In Venezuela, PB was adopted as national policy by Chavez’s government and simultaneously sponsored by the anti-Bolivarian USAID organization operating within the very same country.[17] Similarly, while the new Left wing Portuguese government was sponsoring a national PB in the 1990s, the World Bank and other US-backed NGOs were spreading it throughout countries in the developing world.[18] Thus, we can immediately see PB as a governance tool being used by vastly different political parties for vastly different political goals.

Yet, even when neoliberal institutions tried to coopt PB, they often failed due to its inherent radicalism. After all, the process of predetermining the PB ballot questions to ensure the lack of any substantive political threat can be difficult. For instance, in his essay on World Bank policy in East Africa, political economist Simon O’Meally notes that even though World Bank PB is linked to a neoliberal Washington Consensus, its democratic structure often inadvertently creates the space for anti-neoliberal alternatives.[19] For instance, World Bank PB attempts in Kenya encouraged some Kenyans to advocate for community-owned fish factories.[20] In other words, PB’s innate structure of democratic deliberation–something that can not even be fully taken away by any party–caused citizens to rethink ownership of the means of production.

The aforementioned argument that Karl Marx did not champion workers cooperatives or see them as a progressive force is simply false. Nathan Cedric Tankus, economic researcher at the Modern Money Network, cites a passage from Capital Volume III as being particularly representative of Marx’s pro-cooperative opinions.[21] In this passage, Marx excitedly writes that “the cooperative factories run by workers themselves are, within the old form, the first examples of the emergence of a new form.” These new forms could eventually transform society “on a more or less national scale,” even if the workers served as “their own capitalist.”[22] Additionally, when addressing the First International, Marx unequivocally states that “the value of these great [cooperative] experiments cannot be overrated” and defines them as a “victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property.”[23] In these specific cases, Marx’s support for workers cooperatives is unambiguous.


PB and workers cooperatives in NYC today: the symbiosis of the solidarity economy:  

Relative to other places in America especially, PB has been implemented most successfully in New York City. The process is entering into its sixth year of existence and continuing to galvanize both the possibility and existence of social movement. Over 30 different NYC council districts now participate in PB.

NYC PB has not completely capitulated to neoliberalism. Rather, it has revitalized definitions about governance and citizenship. For instance, in some districts, children as young as 14 get to participate in the PB process.[24] Undocumented people are often allowed to vote, ballots can be cast in languages other than English, and the process is by-and-large more conducive to low income individuals.[25]

Similar to the Kenya case, NYC PB has allowed citizens to challenge neoliberal institutions. For instance, students and parents throughout Queens are now being able to democratically decide how to allocate the school funds given to them. One of the proposals on the ballot will be whether or not to further fund surveillance cameras in the schools. Surveillance is one of the main pillars of NYPD Broken Windows program, sets of policies that over-regulate and incessantly harass poor people of color throughout NYC.[26] Kids and parents get a chance to reject the furthering of Broken Windows and rather invest in more fruitful projects, thus directly challenging an oppressive economic system.[27]

Some of the most radical aspects of PB are happening in Brooklyn’s District 39. The 2017, District 39 ballot had two important questions: The first asked about allocating $11,000 to help foster bilingual outreach for the Southwest Brooklyn Tenant Union, and the second asked about allocating $10,000 to found a house-care cooperative owned by immigrant women.[28] Additionally, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL)–an extension of Black Lives Matter (BLM), the most powerful social movement against American police brutality and the corollary neoliberal state–officially endorsed participatory budgeting at the “local, state and federal level.” Yet again, we see PB not only empower society’s most marginalized people, but also begin to look to workers-power (union and cooperative) as a means to do so. [29]


Shifting tides – the response of the modern elite:

The modern elite is realizing that PB is becoming increasingly harder to co-opt and thus more and more radical. Coincidentally, there has been an uptick in right-wing attacks on PB. For instance, the notoriously conservative New York Post recently published an article by Manhattan Institute apparatchik Nicole Gelinas entitled “Why New York City’s ‘participatory democracy’ is a sham.”[30] The article explicitly complains about the degree of autonomy given to teeangers to make political decisions that directly affect their neighborhoods–after all, isn’t it a neoliberal dream to stifle meaningful political participation, especially if, as previously noted by Baiocchi and Ganuza, such protest challenges power systems? It laments that

Participatory budgeting teaches young and old alike that, hey, the city must need more money. If we can’t afford safe electrical outlets in schools and paved roads, we probably aren’t taxing people enough.[31]

It then pleads for citizens to stop caring about infrastructure and social well-being and instead use the PB process to cut the $10.3 billion the NYC government provides in health benefits to city workers. Yet, Gelinas is merely being rhetorical. She knows that PB does not foster such kind of avaricious behavior but instead builds solidarity. PB opposes austerity and neoliberalism, instead imagining a cooperative, egalitarian world centered around our most marginalized citizens.

However, we should not take Gelinas’ article lightly, but rather see it as a harbinger for things to come. And it would be truly irresponsible for vast sections of the Left to inadvertently aid this impending right-wing criticism because of strange fixations on “point of production” organizing, inaccurate historical understandings on Marx, and political defeatism.

And in this sense, we return to some of the old fights between the Old Left and the New Left, battles between figures like the aforementioned Isaac Deutscher and the great social historian E.P Thompson. In his essay aptly entitled “The Point of Production,” Thompson fights back against the Deutschers of his time condemning the movement away from point of production organizing, stating that in England, it was actually spontaneous action by a mob at the city square–the exact opposite of point of production organizing–that made arrests under a General Warrant illegal, thus making the work of future trade unionists much easier.[32] He eloquently states that

There is no iron law of history, discovered by Marx or by Trotsky, which establishes the priority for “industrial struggle” over all other forms of political or intellectual conflict. Priorities change in different contexts.[33]  

Imagining political activism beyond the factory allows us to embrace a truly inclusive political vision. Thompson called the “point of production as paramount” viewpoint the “iron logic of the atavistic deviant of Marxism” that would–and did–hinder the British socialist agenda. Hopefully we can heed his words and not repeat the mistakes and modern day manifestations of the Old Left.



[1] Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza, Popular Democracy: The Paradox of Participation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 75.

[2] Benjamin Goldfrank, “The World Bank and the Globalization of Participatory Budgeting,” Journal of Public Deliberation, 8.2 (December 2012): 1-14.   

[3] Bhaskar Sunkara, “Bhaskar Sunkara’s AMA, Saturday January 7th, 2017: Question thread!,”,  

[4] Isaac Deutscher, interview by Eric Davis, Allan Whiteman, Gary Wurtzel and Melvin Leiman, “Marxism and the New Left,”,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter Lang and Craig Phelan., ed., Trade Unionism Since 1945: Towards a Global History, Volume 2 (Bern: International Academic Publishers, 2009), 323.

[7] Steve Breyman, Why Movements Matter: The West German Peace Movement and U.S. Arms Control Policy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 214.

[8] John Reimann, “Comment section response to ‘Parsing Out the Legacy of Sewer Socialism: The Municipal, Rebel City Movement in the Age of Trump Has A Precedent,’” The North Star,

[9] Bhaskar Sunkara, “The ‘Anarcho-Liberal,’” Dissent Magazine, September 27th, 2011,

[10] “IWW official preamble,” Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), last accessed May 29th, 2017,

[11] José Eduardo Utzig, “Participatory budgeting of Porto Alegre: a discussion in the light of the principle of democratic legitimacy and of the criterion of governance performance,” The World Bank, last accessed May 29th, 2017,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870–1940 The Praxis of National Liberation, Internationalism, and Social Revolution (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2010), 380.

[14] Utzig, “Participatory budgeting of Porto Alegre.”

[15] Giovanni Allegretti and Sofia Antunes, “The Lisbon Participatory Budget: results and perspectives on an experience in slow but continuous transformation,” Field Actions Science Reports, The journal of field action, 11.1 (October 2014): 1-10.

[16] Baiocchi and Ganuza, Popular Democracy, 68.

[17] Ibid., 72.

[18] Ibid., 73.

[19] Simon O’Meally, “The Contradictions of Pro-poor Participation and Empowerment: The World Bank in East Africa,” Development and Change, 45.6 (November 2014): 1248–1283.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Fred Moseley, ed., Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864-1865 (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2010), 538-539.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Micheline Ishay, ed., The Human Rights Reader: Major Political Essays, Speeches and Documents From Ancient Times to the Present 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2007), 256.   

[24] Ginia Bellafante, “Participatory Budgeting Opens Up Voting to the Disenfranchised and Denied,” New York Times, April 17th, 2015,

[25] Ibid.

[26] Pamela Wilcox, Neil Quisenberry, Debra T. Cabrera, and Shayne Jones, “Busy Places and Broken Windows? Toward Defining the Role of Physical Structure and Process in Community Crime Models,” The Sociological Quarterly, 45.2 (March 2004): 185-207.

[27] Ali Kucukgocmen, “Queens Students And Parents Will Decide How To Spend Funding For School Improvement,” Queens Patch, March 14th, 2017,

[28] “Meet Your Ballot,” New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, last accessed May 29th, 2017,

[29] “Platform,” The Movement For Black Lives, last accessed May 29th, 2017,

[30]  Nicole Gelinas, “Why New York City’s ‘participatory democracy’ is a sham,” New York Post, April 2nd, 2017,

[31] Ibid.

[32]  E.P Thompson, “The Point of Production,” New Left Review, 1.1 (January-February 1960):

[33] Ibid.

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