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This essay critically engages the apparent paradox of the adoption of participation by mainstream institutions. It offers a genealogy of participation and participatory prescriptions in Brazil, beginning with the idea of councils in the early twentieth century, through to the seeming near-universal adoption of participatory budgeting and other participatory forms of governance. It argues that if participation today is often divorced from political projects, participation has never been purely emancipatory, as some critics have suggested. Participation has always had competing goals of legitimation of rule and empowerment. The question before movements and activists before these participatory institutions today is not so much whether to engage with them at all (as more dismissive analyses might imply), but how to engage them strategically so as to leverage equality and inclusion to political ends.

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