Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part II)


It feels like forever since the last discussion on politics and participation, that Henry and I had. I think this has a number of reasons. First, that discussion was published six years ago, as an article in the journal Convergence, which actually is quite some time ago. The plan for this article started even earlier, after a symposium organized by the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism, at Charles University in Prague, which took place on 18 June 2012. Many things have happened since. One thing I cannot let go unmentioned is that I somehow dragged Henry to the Swedish city of Uppsala, to have him crowned (to specific: with laurels). The pictures of the Uppsala University pomp and circumstance have been rescued from oblivion and are well-worth of any reader’s attention. There is another reason why this last discussion feels so long ago, and that is because I have been totally immersed in my recent move to another city, and to a new full-time position, at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism of Charles University (the very same, indeed). So, Henry, when you asked me what I was thinking about these days, the first answer that came to mind was “unpacking boxes”. Luckily, I never lost my good spirits (or my sanity) and none of the 139 boxes were lost, even though some attempted to escape nevertheless.

But there is yet another reason why this discussion from 2012/2013 seems so long ago, and that is because times have changed rapidly. Times always change, of course, but my sense is that we have entered into an era that is qualifiable different from the state of affairs only a decade ago. Something happened in the way we think, and it gives cause to deep concerns. I believe that this ideological shift is captured well by the last part of the title of this conversation series (“Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis”), which has not been addressed enough in these conversations: Crisis. Even if we might agree that the idea of crisis has reached the West, we should first avoid the all-too-common Western arrogance, and acknowledge that other parts in the world have been in deep crisis. Some managed to handle these crises well, but others remain in crisis, and have been for too long. And maybe the West has its own crises, and failed to see and acknowledge them. Some of my recent work, together with Vaia Doudaki, is on the construction of homeless identities. It shows the impact of the (poverty) crisis that has been with us, in the West, for a very long time. And second, if we want to use the signifier crisis, we might want to specify what this crisis is about, in order to avoid that every little change becomes labeled a crisis. In French, you have this wonderful word, the crisette, to indicate these minor crises that are not really crises. I would argue that keeping a long-term, historical perspective is a very necessary safeguard against overly agitated analyses that label every set-back as a crisis. 

But still, I do think that the use of the signifier ‘crisis’ in the title is appropriate. And I would argue that it is the idea of democracy itself that is in crisis. The crisis of representative democracy has been going on for a while, as Tormey (2015: 149) documents in The End of Representative Politics. It consists out of this idea: 

“The democracy of the representatives has come to be regarded by many as not only a rather pale imitation of the real thing, but a mechanism for preventing ordinary citizens exercising greater control over their own lives.” 

Now, we have reached a point where the crisis of representative democracy has evolved into something bigger, and much more troubling and threatening, and that is the crisis of democracy itself. The many contributors to “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” might not have discussed the notion of crisis that explicitly, but as they are often writing about the USA, there are ample references to the democratic threats posed by the current US regime and the alt-right movement. But I would hate to get stuck into discussing one particular country, and believe that this democratic crisis is pervasive in the West, albeit in always different forms. Using a European perspective, for now, I would like to argue that after the Yugoslav wars (in particular the 1991-1995 phase) there was a strong desire to strengthen European democracy, human rights and peace. This has slowly changed, with the so-called refugee crisis—which I prefer to call a hospitality crisis—as a pivotal dislocation, ‘assisted’ by a series of successful terrorist attacks throughout Europe. This, in combination with a wide variety of other processes and events (think of Russia’s strong-handed return to the international stage, for instance, resulting in the annexation of part of the Ukraine, making it rather easy for the West to invoke an enemy image, even when this is still too easy), has produced strong voices that wish to move outside democracy, and that advocate the establishment of more authoritarian, nationalist and exclusionary regimes. What is even worse, these voices do more than speak: for instance, the Greek Racist Violence Recording Network reported in its annual report, “117 incidents of racist violence, with more than 130 victims” in 2018 in Greece. 

But let us not forget that there are several ‘older’ conflicts that feed into this assemblage of violence. One European example I am familiar with is Cyprus (see The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation and Cyprus and its Conflicts: Representations, Materialities, and Cultures). Without going too much into detail, Cyprus is still a divided island, after decades of violent conflict, with the independence war against the British colonizer (1955-59), which also included violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, with the intra-communal violence of the 1960s after independence, with the 1974 coup, instigated by Greece, followed by a Turkish military invasion and the segregation of the island’s population, with mass displacement as a consequence. Currently, the Republic of Cyprus, which is the legally recognized state power in Cyprus and a member-state of the European Union, finds itself in an uneasy state of de facto power-sharing with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey. Despite an almost endless series of peace negotiations, the deadlock continues, with the island split in two parts, by an UN-controlled militarized/demilitarized buffer zone. Even if this conflict is a low-intensity conflict, and its details are not very well known, it remains a highly disruptive force on the island and in Europe, with the tensions with Turkey rising again because of the disputes over the Aphrodite gas field off the southern coast of Cyprus. 

These conflicts, and the threats to democracy they pose, coincide with the grown levels of participation in a variety of societal fields. Allow me to recycle here two paragraphs from an earlier publication, the foreword of Networks, Movements and Technopolitics in Latin America, where I argued that we are living in the era of the both, a contemporary political configuration which is characterized by the increasing levels of participation and the decreasing levels of control over the levers of societal power. Often, this paradox is mediated and “solved” through a defense (or a critique) of either utopian or dystopian perspectives, where this dys/utopianism is sometimes related to communication technologies, or in other cases to citizen or civil society powers, or to state or company powers. I believe we need to treat this paradox much more as a paradox, as a seemingly contradictory statement. We need to take both components of the paradox serious, acknowledge that there is a history of coexistence combined with a present-day intensification of power imbalances, and scrutinize how they dynamically and contingently relate to each other. In other words, we need to gain a better understanding of how we now live in the era of the both.  

If we apply a Longue Durée approach (Braudel, 1969) to the establishment and growth of democracy, we can hardly deny that we have come a long way. Of course, the history of our diverse democratization processes is characterized by continuities and discontinuities, dead-ends, contradictions, and horrible regressions. But what Mouffe (2000: 1–2) called the “democratic revolution” “led to the disappearance of a power that was embodied in the person of the prince and tied to a transcendental authority. A new kind of institution of the social was hereby inaugurated in which power became ‘an empty place’.” Even if we zoom in on the twentieth and twenty-first century, it is hard not to see the differences with the past. It is equally hard to ignore that the history of more than 200 years of democratic revolution has brought us more participation, in a variety of ways and levels. 

And this finally brings me to participation. I would see participation, defined as the redistribution of power (see my Beyond the Ladder of Participation article for more), as the exact location of that democratic revolution, where participatory intensities increased within the institutional political system (the deepening of participation in politics) and where they increased in many other social realms (the broadening of participation, moving outside politics). I would argue that this process has been one of the most significant processes in the past centuries, and key to our societal happiness and well-being. I tend to see this, as you mention in your opening statement, as an unfinished project, with ample opportunities to further decentralize power relations, which serves our deeply rooted desire for power. Not in the negative Nietzschean way, but as a deeply rooted desire to be empowered, to gain control over our everyday lives, and to be protected from the power abuse that absolute power brings about. (We should keep John Emerich Edward Dalberg’s words in mind: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”) I also see maximalist participation as an unfinishable project, as a utopia that can never be achieved, as new power imbalances will arise and disrupt the power equilibrium of maximalist participation. Participation is object of a permanent political struggle, and as I think that it is unlikely for elitist forces to disappear, the radical realization of maximalist participation is inherently unstable. But thirdly, I think that participation could also be finished. It could come to an end. Democracy, as a political and social practice, is not a given, but could cease to exist. It is always under threat, and its disappearance might also imply the end of participatory practices. This is why participation and democracy need to be actively protected, and not just silently appreciated and considered to be a given. 

To give one example from the city I have just moved to: Have a look at the struggles of the Plastic People of the Universe, the alternative rock band that was active during the times of communist Czechoslovakia, and see what damage the oppressive state machinery did to it. We can celebrate their courage, and rightfully so, and we can acknowledge how important their prosecution was to rally the dissident movement into action (producing Charta 77). But maybe we could prevent landing into this kind of un-participatory mess again, avoiding a political system that necessitates this kind of resistance in the first place. Or, to give another example, with which I open my Media and Participation book and that has always deeply touched me: During the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, the garrison town of Theresienstadt (or Terezín in Czech) had been transformed into a concentration camp that became “home” to more than 50,000 Jewish people, awaiting their deportation to the Auschwitz extermination camp. A group of young boys, housed in Barracks L417 (or Home One) started, in secret, to produce a newspaper, Vedem (“We lead”). The remarkable collection of essays, reviews, stories, drawings and poetry, written by the 13-, 14- and 15-year-old boys in Home One, were preserved and are now in the collections of the Memorial of Terezín. Only 15, out of the 100 or so occupants of Home One, survived the war. Vedem’s editor-in-chief, Petr Ginz, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. One can only admire that their resilience in the face of this extreme violence, but at the same time we should hope that their resistance will never be necessary again, and their tragic destiny can be avoided for the generations to come.  

The current political reconfiguration is also an explicit attack on the more intense forms of participation. Populist projects are built, I would argue, on the core idea that the old establishment is betraying the people, and needs to be replaced by a new elite, that truly represents the people. The latter is an ideological construction that is impossible to realize, given the heterogeneity of the social and the diversity of the people. This is the Lie of populism. That, in itself, is already problematic enough, but many (although not all) populist projects articulate the elite as an authoritarian elite, advocating leadership models that are non-democratic. Participatory politics has no place in these models, as the authoritarian elite sees itself as the ultimate representative of the people, where the latter no longer has to speak for itself. We might want to keep in mind that democracy is the (always different) balance of the people’s exercise of power (participation) and the delegation of power (representation); Authoritarianism is the radicalization of the delegation of power, and the elimination of participation. 

But there are more threats to participation, as participation is becoming more and more problematized. I tend to see participation not as a problem, but as a solution, even though there are particular pre-conditions that have to be met (see below) for participation to be able to play this role. There is an ongoing tendency to problematize participation, focusing on (the) dark (side) of participation, or on bad participation. This might be one of the things to discuss further, but I am not too convinced that the best thing to do is to create dichotomies between good and bad participation (there is a long tradition of doing this in participatory theory, which I think is problematic), or to label destructive interactions “participatory”, while I would argue that these are interactions, not participations (even if the latter is not very grammatically correct, I must confess). My starting point would be the broader question: “Can democracy be bad?” I definitely agree that democracy can be weak, an argument nicely made by Barber (1984) in his Strong Democracy. Participatory Politics for a New Age, and many others. But can it really be bad? And that brings me to the question whether participation can be bad? Or is it more a matter of participation being weak or strong, or, in my terms, minimalist or maximalist? Of course, the preference for minimalist or maximalist participation is an ideological-normative matter, just as the preference for weak or strong democracy is one. But that’s not the question. Are we not defending the hegemony of democracy, and thus the hegemony of participation as a democratic principle, which also implies that we do not wish to contest the principles of democracy and participation, even though their exact realizations and materializations are still object of democratic struggle? I could undust the distinction I make between interaction and participation, where I would argue that interaction is the establishment of socio-communicative relationships, and participation is the equalization of power relations in formal or informal decision-making moments. This matters at the normative level too, because I would argue that interactions can be “bad”, or ethically problematic. Murder is a form of social interaction, and deeply problematic. But this is where the difference between interaction and participation plays out (and the usefulness of this distinction becomes apparent), because I would argue that participation, or the decentralization of power relations, cannot be “bad”. 

I need to further problematize the previous statement, because there are preconditions attached to this position. This line of reasoning only works when a substantive definition of participation is used, and not a procedural definition. In democratic theory, this distinction is crucial. Procedural democracy restricts democracy to the “rule-centered and outcome-centered conceptions of democracy” (Shapiro, 1996: 123). In procedural democracy, an outcome is “[…] acceptable as long as the relevant procedure generates it,” while in the case of substantive democracy, a “[…] [re]distributive outcome or state of affairs (equality, lack of certain types or degrees of inequality, or some other) […]” (Shapiro, 1996: 123) is defined, which is then used to evaluate the results of the decision rules. My argument would be that this distinction also applies directly to participation, where substantive participation then refers to how the outcomes of the participatory process relate to power imbalances beyond the participatory process, and other societal groups. Or, in other terms, for participation to be participation, it needs to be embedded into a participatory-democratic ethics. Of course, this necessary articulation of participation might not be taken for granted in social practice, but I would still like to argue that conceptually, for participation to be participation, it needs to be embedded into a democratic ethics. I do not have this conceptual requirement for the much broader concept of interaction, but I would see this requirement as a necessary component of participation. Yet, again there is a need to defend and strengthen participatory ethics, as part of the project of defending democracy in itself. And that is supported by (the need for) an ethics of interaction, which together come close that what you have labeled civic imagination. 

This brings me to the questions of strategy. I have, quite carefully, looked at the many contributions to the “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” conversation series, because they offer a variety of strategies to strengthen democracy, and protect it. Without aiming to be exhaustive, because the conversations were very rich, there are a few examples that I want to mention. First, we, as teachers have a role to play. Gabriel Peters-Lazaro mentions in his conversation with Winifred R. Poster, the New Media for Social Change course he has been teaching with Sangita Shresthova, which I think is a crucial model for strengthening participation and democracy through the educational system. In the conversation between Kevin Driscoll and Pablo Martínez-Zárate, the latter also argues for a radical pedagogy, which I would like to support.  

But, when he writes about his work with “documentary and experimental art”, Pablo’s comments open up a second field that can contribute to the defense of democracy, which is the arts. The arts, with its reflective and critical components, has the capacity to strengthen democracy. Sometimes it is a matter of holding up a mirror, and showing, for instance, the horrible cost of exclusion and inequality. One example comes to mind, and that is Barca Nostra (“Our ship”), which is also a reference to “Mare Nostrum”, a Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea), created by the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel for the Venice Biennale. The art work consists out of the wreckage of the fishing boat that sank on 18 April 2015, close to the Libyan coast, after a collision with a ship that tried to rescue the fishing boat’s passengers. Around 800 people, trapped inside the fishing boat, drowned.  

In other cases, art can not only thematize democracy and its values, but it can actively intervene in the organization of (maximalist) participatory practices. One example here is the Respublika! exhibition Participation Matters, which I curated. Its catalogue, entitled Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy gives an overview of the fascinating variety of art projects, that reflected about participation and democracy, organized participation and democracy, or did both, as a modest attempt to contribute to the strengthening of Cypriot democracy. 

And, of course, as the conversations in the “Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis” series show in great detail, popular culture also the capacity to strengthen democracy and participation (even if there are no guarantees). Without wanting to go into great depth in the analyses of this field—the many authors in the conversation series do this with much more knowledge and eloquence—there is one example I like to add, also because it reiterates the argument in the Rox Samer and Raffi Sarkissian conversation that humor and parody matters, and it brings in counter-culture. For instance, as the example of the 2019 Eurovision Song Festival in Tel Aviv (Israel) shows, parody can be used when dealing with militarist and oppressive states. The Icelandic group Hatari, who performed the song Hatrið mun sigra (“Hate will prevail”) at the Festival, not only held up Palestinian flags at the very last stage of the broadcast, but also turned their entire presence (and not just their 3-minute performance) at the Festival into a situationist intervention, which was, I must confess, most entertaining to watch. The confrontation of their counter-cultural codes (combining EBM and BDSM—Electronic Body Music and Bondage/Discipline/Dominance/Submission/Sadism/Masochism) with a cultural event that is very much organized through/for dominant mainstream culture, produced an absurd deconstruction of Israel’s deployment of the Festival to strengthen its international legitimacy and to further render its militarist and oppressive characteristics further invisible, but also of the Festival’s deep capitalist structure.

Finally, in this last paragraph I want to return to what the intellectual field can do, and to Kevin Driscoll’s wise words, in the conversation with Pablo Martínez-Zárate, when the former wrote: “to thrive in the long term, we need a shared vision of the future marked by accountability and justice.” I would argue (and I have argued, in an article entitled A Call to Arms) that is a strong need to develop a new imaginary that is democratic, participatory, just, and peaceful, and that intellectuals have a crucial responsibility in this endeavor. Possibly, we cannot do this on an individual basis, and this needs to be a collective and modular project, but there is a strong need for a long-term approach, which is global and transgenerational, and which can act as a counter-weight for the permanent attacks on the heart of democracy. We have work to do.


Barber, Benjamin (1984) Strong Democracy. Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Braudel, Fernand. (1969). Écrits sur l’Histoire. Paris: Flammarion.

Carpentier, Nico (2014) A call to arms. An essay on the role of the intellectual and the need for producing new imaginaries, Javnost – The Public, 21(3): 77-92.

Carpentier, Nico (2018) Foreword - The Era of the Both, in Francisco Sierra Caballero and Tommaso Gravante (eds.) Networks, Movements and Technopolitics in Latin America. Critical Analysis and Current Challenges, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. v-xii.

Jenkins, Henry, Carpentier, Nico (2013) Theorizing participatory intensities: A conversation about participation and politics, Convergence, 19(3): 265-286.

Mouffe, Chantal. (2000). The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.

Shapiro, Ian (1996) Democracy’s Place. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Tormey, Simon (2015) The End of Representative Politics. Cambridge: Polity.


Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds  part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures 
(2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).