The growth of participatory governance has had the unintended consequence of spawning complex new forms of political representation. The participatory governance structures that have emerged alongside classic institutions of representative democracy encompass not only direct citizen participation but also political representation by civil society (collective) actors. Using original data from Brazil, we show that many of these collective actors engage in what we call ‘assumed representation’. In contrast to political parties and labour unions, these actors lack widely accepted and historically consolidated mechanisms through which their publics can authorise representation or ensure accountability and responsiveness. In particular, most do not rely on formal electoral or membership mechanisms. This layer of collective actors therefore faces a historic challenge – the construction of novel notions of democratic legitimacy that can support their forms of representation. The survival of the democratising current of which they are a part depends in some measure on how this challenge is met. We examine what new notions of representations are emerging in participatory governance structures and trace the historic roots of the most widespread and promising, that focus on remedying inequality in access to the state.