The “Paradox of Participation” in Marketing Democracy


In book Marketing Democracy: Power and Social Movements in Post-Dictatorship Chile Julia Paley thoughtfully criticizes contemporary Chilean democracy. The author interprets Chile as the political and economic model for developing countries. She depicts the Chileans’ struggle for mobilization and critique of the democracy that has evolved as a result of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The book is written in accessible and descriptive prose, which allows Paley to raise a couple of questions concerning the governance in the country and the era allegedly adherent to “participation”, “growth with equity”, and “democracy”.

Chile’s economic and political history of the last 30 years undergoes regional typologies. Its iconoclasm indicates national processes of governance that utter disturbing questions about the character of current neoliberal reforms, as well as about the Chilian nature of democracy. The reforms, successfully tested under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, have followed democratic transitions in the former Soviet bloc, the collapse of Marxism, civil wars in Central America and a range of other events.


The relationship between political action and political knowledge – the way it is produced, co-opted and constrained, and the way it can be used as a weapon against a democratic regime – is being closely examined by Julia Paley in her work. She illustrates how the objective and abstract measurements of electioneering produce what she calls the “marketing” of democracy (Paley 125-130), facilitating democracy while its practice is being organized in ways that naturalize connections between the political freedom and free market. She illustrates the way the structural inequity that destabilized an authoritarian regime in Chile became legitimated under a democratic regime.

Llareta, a grassroots health group in La Bandera is the center of Paley’s ethnography. Llareta was founded during a flurry of internationally supported clandestine activity against the Pinochet dictatorship in the early 1980s. According to Paley, Llareta plays a central role in the history of La Bandera. Llareta persisted a decade after the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship in spite of the massive demobilization of grassroots organizations, which was accomplished by integrating many organization leaders into the formal bureaucratic organization of the democratic state. Llareta’s survival sets the group apart and makes it an ideal foil for describing democracy’s political pacification. Like many grassroots groups, Llareta underwent its own transition during the postdictatorship period when the repressive state, the object of its opposition, disappeared. Unlike many other groups, however, Llareta managed to survive this transition by challenging the democratic state’s insistence on personal responsibility for health and well-being into demands for public sector accountability. They do so by using the state’s techniques of democratic knowledge production (such as health surveys and health campaigns) against the state and by showing how household and personal health problems stem from conditions created by the state in the first place.

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Paley’s experiment in ethnographic presentation falls short of expectations, however, because neither the activist account nor the scholarly account of her research is complete on its own. Although Paley makes it clear that she dutifully and assiduously referred to the ethnographic knowledge that she had acquired while researching her dissertation, she does not make clear what that knowledge comprised. In the epilogue, she notes that “as it turned out my analysis closely paralleled the health promoters’ own commentary” (Paley 214). It is difficult to identify how her account of the history of the poblacion and her critique of democracy differ from those of the health promoters. The danger therein, as one of Paley’s interlocutor points out after reading her dissertation, is that “what strikes me… is that I didn’t hear anything new” (Paley 188). Although much of what Paley writes is worthwhile and will be new to readers unfamiliar with Chile, some readers might concur that Paley’s analytic method and its presentation are less than novel.

While researching the book Marketing Democracy: Power and Social Movements in Post-Dictatorship Chile by Julia Paley, I found a lot of issues worth being examined more thoroughly. The main issue this paper deals with is the “paradox of participation”. Julia Paley in her discussion of the paradox of participation examines how power functioned in Chile in the 1990s. It is a universally acknowledged fact that repression was no longer the power’s key form of expression at that time. The author puts a very significant question: “How might participation simultaneously operate both as motivating force and a mode of control – a form of governmentality – that is characteristic of democracy amid neoliberal economics in Chile?” (Paley 147). What is more, she explores the specialized structuring of participation in the society under democracy. Two cholera campaigns, one sponsored by health groups and one by the state serve us a good example of the contrast between the meaning and power of participation. These campaigns also illustrate the opposition to the depoliticized and personalized construction of the problem. Paley pays exceptional attention to this discussion, as her main aim is to explore whose knowledge counts. In the discussion of the legitimation of the knowledge, Paley addresses the contestation of health groups like Llareta, which were committed to build the knowledge from the ground up. It is worth mentioning that the author appreciates the community activists who consider themselves creative and critical thinkers and actors, who have the right to contribute to the decisions that influence their lives. However, at the same time, Julia Paley outlines the obstacles that abridge their participation in Chile’s free-market democracy.

Nowadays the “paradox of participation” has become a very controversial topic for discussion. It is considered that participation, voting in particular, has become irrational. When we talk about a large country, there are few or no chances that one’s vote can change the election’s outcome. What is more, the costs of voting overpass the benefits. We can also think about this issue in another way, considering the person who votes as such that strives to have an influence on the government. However, this person will be disappointed as the truth is that his/her vote could make no difference. On the other hand, if every voting person did not believe that their choice effected changes, the democratic process would stop functioning, as no one would come to elections.

The majority of citizens living under democracy have several reasons to take part in politics. First, and perhaps the most important is the sense of idealism, which means that people participate because of their strong belief in some idea. Secondly, it could be the sense of responsibility, as people treat their participation as the main responsibility of democratic citizenship. One more reason is the self-interest, when a person participates because it can be profitable for him/her. Last but not least, there is the sense of enjoyment. Some people enjoy public activity, either because of friends they make while participating or the activity itself.

On the other hand, there are countries where the majority of citizens are not politically participated at all. This nonparticipation serves as a signal of number of attitudes, such as contentment, apathy, alienation or freedom. People may not participate because of their satisfaction with the status quo, or because they do not care about politics at all. Furthermore, the main principle of democracy is the one about freedom, so people have the free will either to participate or not. Finally, the feeling that the government is indifferent to them can also be a reason for nonparticipation.

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There is much research concerning the paradox of participation, and participation in general. The article by Giles Mohan and Kristian Stokke examines “the links between development theory and political action and the ways in which new political spaces are being imagined and constructed” (Mohan and Stokke 247). The authors pay attention to such issues as decentralization, participatory, social and local development, and radical democracy. While studying the role of “local participation” it was found out that it can be used by different ideological stakeholders for various purposes. For instance, it can either underplay the role of the transitional power and the state or stick Eurocentric solutions to the development of the Third World societies. “The relationship between the state and society can be characterized by strategic engagement or disengagement, but the image of the state and society as discrete spheres cannot be sustained” (Mohan and Stokke 264). The new localism tends to make the local essentials that constitute resistance or host homogeneous communtities. This contradicts the modern understanding of place, and goes against human geography. Geographers get used to the fact that places are constituted by social, economic, political and cultural relations and flows of commodities, and people that treach outwards given locality. However, it does not imply the rejection of the local as empowerment’s basis. It is the point that the political project will encounter difficulties and binary opposites, like state/civil, local/global society in order to be relevant.

Although Paley’s ethnography of democracy offers provocative insights, it also has limitations. First, her presentation centers on the transition from dictatorship to democracy and states that the legacy of Pinochet has compromised the contemporary practice of democracy in Chile. Her presentation offers a very truncated view of Chilean political history that fails to appreciate a longer history of tensions and contradictions in the country’s understanding of democracy. Likewise, she neglects the longer history of collective agency, resistance, and contestation of the part of Chile’s poor and working class sectors that shaped political mobilization in the 1980s. Second, Paley pays considerable attention to the popular education methodologies used by community activists in La Bandera, and she invests time and effort in learning and practicing these methods. However, she neither inquires into the cultural and historical salience of popular education as a strategy for social change, nor considers significant intellectual and political history of Chile. It is significant that the ideology and practice of popular education is used in popular sectors, and it merits ethnographic attention.


In sum, Paley has made an important contribution to our understanding of democracy as a subject of ethnographic inquiry and to the possibilities for engaged scholarship; Marketing Democracy is a very accessible text that appeals to a broad audience in cultural anthropology, Latin American studies, and political science as well as to community activists.

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