Possess to Participate

Some terms are like scalpels: cold, sharp, precise. Then there are terms like large handbags: you can put a lot of stuff into them. The terms ‘partaking’ and ‘taking part’ seem to resemble a Black Forest Cake: rich in tradition, complex and nutritious. This is to be considered when analysing the term.

By Bernd Draser. Translated from German by Stefan Helwig and Simon Varga


To start our analysis, we have to go back in time. When people started to discuss the problematic consequences of industrial economics in the last third of the 20th century, the damaged environment was initially at the centre of attention at first. Social justice was a topic left to trade unions and corporate managers and the so-called welfare apparatus – the government. It was not until sustainability developed into one of the guiding concepts in the 1990's that we understood how to think of ecological issues in a complex manner and in connection with social and economic issues. Today, ‘partaking and taking part’ is used to describe the social dimension of sustainability in its totality.

When talking about these concepts today, we talk about many things at once: about social and political involvement, safeguarding livelihoods and gender equality, integration and inclusion, education, and recently even liquid democracy and Internet policy.

Equality and Society

At first, talking about partaking and taking part was established as a strategy for normalising the conditions of life of disabled people, in particular under the heading of 'integration.' One example for this is the ninth book of the German Social Security Code (SGB IX), which demands "integration into social life" and self-determined life. When we take up the terms 'partaking and taking part,' we will notice that the words include both 'part' and 'take,' that is to say possessing a part, but also taking part, i.e. participate. What makes the term so attractive is that it also hints at the notion of a partaker, perhaps even at that of a stakeholder who, together with others, possesses or is involved in something in his role as an economic player. Other connotations that relate to 'part' are social sharing (communio), be it liturgically as communicating (communicatio), or in a socio-politic manner as redistributing. In this age of networks, partaking for the most part seems to be everything from the communication of one's own position in the sense of political participation to liquid democracy, but also blind and enraged in shit storms, botnet attacks, Occupy Everything, or the lynch flash mob.

This spectrum given by the term is hence broad and worth differentiating. At one end of this spectrum, we observe a discharge amongst the masses, eliminating the things non-identical, hoping to achieve equality with the destruction of everything unequal.

Democracy and Delegating

At the other end of this spectrum, liquid democracy tries to solve the paradox of direct democracy. In a society characterised by ever-growing complexity, the layman would have to become an expert in virtually everything. However, liquid democracy is not only about giving everybody equal opportunities to express their opinion, but also about enabling people to delegate their vote to a person, if they feel that this person does not only represent their interests but also has the necessary expertise. This includes the obligation to reflect on one’s own (in)competences and to responsibly delegate one’s vote in a continuous process. At this point, it is necessary to adopt the classic approach of looking to ancient Greece for inspiration for three reasons. First of all, the concept of liquid democracy is nothing but the old Socratic question of knowledge and non-knowledge. Socrates himself came to the conclusion that at least he realises that he knows nothing–which is far more than any of the experts he questioned. From this insight, one can derive the certainty that political participation can only be achieved through education, meaning the capacity to identify one’s own shortcomings and knowledge gaps rather than expert knowledge. From this point of view, education is not the objective of participation, but a necessary condition for its realisation.

The Whole and the True

Secondly, Athens had a mechanism that motivated its citizens to actively partake in political activities. People involved in democratic decision-making were rewarded with a coin, the proverbial obolós, thus providing an appropriate audience for the democratic process. This was a more pragmatic approach than today’s campaign finance system that allocates financial resources according to election results. The same applies to the idea of an unconditional basic income which is designed to create more liberty for social engagement by providing a comfortable livelihood instead of rewarding contributions to society only once they have been made.

Last of all, the term ‘partaking’ presupposes a whole of which one can partake. For Hegel, the whole is the true. And indeed, talking about the whole and the true is a necessary counterpart to talking about partaking in something as an ontologically deficient form of being. Plato describes participation (methexis) as the way things partake in ideas, ideas being the abstract and ever true archetypes of the concrete, ephemeral and imperfect things that surround us and that we are ourselves. Plato’s pupil Aristotle rejected his teacher’s definition of partaking as an opaque metaphor.

This should serve as a warning. There is a reason why Adorno objected to Hegel’s dictum by stating that the whole was the false. In Adorno’s terms, partaking usually appears to designate an act of entangling oneself in the false: by partaking in mass culture, the culture industry, and maybe in guilt. The elimination of the non-identical to better fit the part into the whole. From a societal point of view, this may well seem to be paternalistic care that meets expectations by satisfying needs.

Facets and differences

Partaking has to preserve its complexity, because it is only through these facets that partaking and taking part become one. Subsidiarity constitutes a vital aspect of this complexity, since things should be entrusted to the persons whom they concern. In a political, cultural or economic context, this principle encourages the people in charge to take a responsible attitude, which is crucial to the idea of partaking itself. By partaking in processes, ventures, and debates and thus enabling themselves, individuals become more simple cogs in the machinery, side-lined by welfare, and create political, cultural, and economic values by means of active participation. To sum it up, partaking designates the ability and the willingness to act productively within complex contexts.

Bernd Draser teaches philosophy at ecosign/Academy for Design, Cologne

More articles to the range of subjects participation, partaking and involvement can be found not only online but also in our magazine Partaking & Taking Part. Nicely illustrated and readable on tablet computers and monitors the PDF magazine contains all posts and photos as well as additional figures and quotes.

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