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The year 2011 has breathed new life into horizontal models of democratic decision-making. With the rise of the 15 May movement and the Occupy movement horizontal decision-making became one of the key political structures for organising responses to the current global economic crisis. While this decision-making process has arguably never been as widely practiced as it is today, it has also never seemed as difficult and complicated as it does today. At its height there were 5,000 people at the general assemblies in Placa Catalunya in Barcelona and even more in Madrid. It is no longer just activists trying to use and teach each other these decision-making processes but it is hundreds of thousands of people who have a far greater disparity in terms of backgrounds, starting assumptions, aims and discursive styles. This is incredibly good news, but it is not easy.
The current historical juncture requires reflection on these decision-making methods and here I explore a few of the important lessons that seem to stand out after participating in these processes in Barcelona, New York and Oakland. First, more awareness of the political values that underlie these seemingly practical meeting procedures referred to as ‘process’ would be helpful. Second, the link between these political values and the social relations of economics could use some analysis: in order to create new political structures we actually have to let go of certain economic relations which we take as given. For example, horizontal decision-making does not work when we assume a) that resources are scarce, b) that we therefore need to compete with each other and c) ownership is an exclusionary relation—a proprietary relation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the more we try to set the rules in stone, to find the ‘golden key’, the ideal set of procedures, the more we disengage from the central political questions of how we decide—a terrain of politics that has to remain open if it is to remain horizontal. In order for a ‘general assembly’ to be productive, effective and empowering to participants, the procedures have to maintain a certain degree of flexibility as the circumstances in which we find ourselves shift. Let me explain what I mean…
Horizontal decision-making was, of course, never invented as such. People making decisions together without any structured hierarchy has always existed. The particular form that horizontal decision-making is taking today in the Occupy movement in the US, for example, has a history that can be traced back at least into the 1960s. During the 1960s, the New Left broke off from the traditional political party structures and began (inspired of course by those who came before) a long journey on the path towards participatory democracy, inclusion, equal say of participants and less programmatic approaches to social change. Communism as the main ideology of the Left came into discredit with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and then Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the lacuna created by the decline of Communism as a real alternative to capitalism grew a search for a less ideological, less programmatic approach to social change. Notions of participatory democracy started to merge with practices of consensus, especially in the US, and grew over time into a key aspect of movement culture, in no small part due to the women’s/feminist movements, anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 1970s. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Do-it-Yourself culture and environmental movements kept these decision-making practices alive to be reinvented as ‘horizontal’ decision-making in the 2000s, post-Seattle, post-Zapatista uprising, post-2001 Argentinian economic collapse, etc. For ten years horizontal decision-making was practiced on a relatively large scale, with varying degrees of success, within the global networks of the alterglobalization movement during the preparations for the anti-summit protests (anti-WTO, IMF/WB, G8) and for the world, regional and local Social Forums.
Importantly, these decision-making methods were not just practiced as procedures, but as the building blocks for the alternative models of social and political organization being proposed by these movements. These same procedures of horizontal decision-making re-emerge in the Occupy movement, or very similar ones, as well as the idea that decision-making procedures are not only practical, but also the basis for political alternatives to the current economic paradigm of governance.
Perhaps some reflections on the political values that have accompanied horizontal decision-making in the past would therefore be useful. Here I draw on ten years of experience with horizontal decision-making in the context on anti-summit mobilizations and social forums to raise some food for thought. (For a much more detailed and complicated analysis of these values see the book: The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy.)
1. Horizontal decision-making practices are not just procedures, but they are the building blocks of an alternative form of governance in the making. It is therefore very important that the meetings are as inclusive as possible, as functional as possible and, perhaps most importantly, as empowering as possible.
2. Horizontal decision-making rests on a transformation in the way we think about ‘equality’ and how it is created. The starting assumption is that full equality between all participants cannot exist naturally, and therefore structures and procedures are needed in order to continuously challenge hierarchies as they arise—whether they be based on gender, sex, race, class, education, skill, job, ability to express oneself, or inter-personal power dynamics based on past interactions. In this model of thinking, equality is not something that can be declared and then forgotten about as in: ‘all men are created equal,’ but is something that has to be continuously created and worked on.
3. In order to ensure that equality can be increased between people from different backgrounds, the differences between people need to have room for expression. The aim of decision-making cannot be to create the one best solution that is enforced on everyone. Unity of thought, of action, of identity makes this type of equality impossible. This is why one of the key values underlying decision-making in the alterglobalization movement is ‘diversity.’ Diversity is a rejection of unity as the guiding principle of cooperation. What diversity means in this case is not that everyone is different, but that these differences are taken seriously and translated into the outcomes of the decision-making process. There is very little political power in giving each person equal input into a decision if the outcome of the decision only represents the concerns of one group of people (as in a winner-takes-all voting system). This multiple outcomes approach, however, requires that people realise that they have the option to act autonomously. This means that if they don’t agree with a decision taken, they don’t have to implement it and they can do something else.
4. Autonomy between participants is essential to keep the ‘general assembly’ from becoming a source of centralized and hierarchical power. If equal outcomes are multiple outcomes then the best suited political structure for horizontality is a structure that allows for multiple, separate groups of people to coordinate with only limited unity of purpose. Decentralized network structures are ideal for this. People align themselves based on any number of different interests or activities and only come together with people who share different interests or activities in order to a) communicate about what they are doing and to hear about what others are doing, b) to coordinate their activities when necessary, and c) for decisions that will affect everyone. Autonomy/decentralization is necessary to embrace diversity and diversity is necessary for equality.
The task facing meeting ‘facilitators’ today is considerably harder than the task facing facilitators in the alterglobalization movement. Even before I arrived in the US, I was struck by how often I heard via email, phone, Facebook, and via.com complaints about how ‘bureaucratic’ the process of decision-making had become in the Occupy Wall Street movement. But it was not until I attended my first general assembly in Zuccotti Park and not until I spent hours having discussion after discussion about the problems with ‘process’ in New York (with people from the different working groups inside Occupy Wall Street, loosely affiliated activists and people who intentionally reject the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ label) that I began to understand what was meant by ‘bureaucracy’ and why it was perceived as such a danger to the movement.
Although people themselves were still searching for what they specifically meant by ‘bureaucracy’ and why it was such a big problem, several factors were immediately apparent. Those participating in the general assembly were applying what I would consider a ‘capitalist’ logic to horizontal decision-making. Specifically, the three related assumptions that I saw appear, which I classify here as ‘capitalist’, were 1) that resources are scarce, 2) that we need to compete with each other to be heard or to get what we want and 3) what I would call a ‘proprietary’ attitude between participants: people were claiming domains of activity or knowledge as theirs, as something they were in a privileged position to know or act upon (everything from the kitchen to the figures of the ‘artist’ or the ‘academic’ were mentioned in discussions as groups of people who set themselves apart, claimed certain privilege based on knowledge, skill or work hours, and used this claim to knowledge to exclude others). As a result there was a perception that people were placing themselves in a position of control or superior knowledge and were resistant (for what I imagine are a very complex set of reasons) to sharing these tasks, skills or knowledge by creating the forms of constructive communication that are essential to the functioning of horizontal decision-making.
Part of the appeal of horizontal decision-making is that it rests on a different set of values than those of the current profit-driven society. This is also the source of its potential as an alternative to the current economic paradigm of democracy. So it is no small matter when the ‘process’ isn’t working well for so many people. As the weeks carried on, I began to see how interconnected all of these assumptions were. These complaints when taken together indicate that far from using the term ‘bureaucracy’ informally to refer to ‘red tape,’ those complaining about bureaucracy were expressing an implicit understanding of the relationship between bureaucracy and capitalism. This insight, which is being both intentionally and unintentionally developed in New York, is crucial to understanding how horizontal decision-making works and when it does not work as a political structure.
First, the idea that resources are limited. The introduction of so much money into the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be at the centre of this problem, but it is not only money. Fame too is a big one. So many people want to be in the spotlight and the spotlight is limited and fleeting. But Occupy is not the first movement to have money or to need money. Though the precedents in terms of money’s influence on horizontal movement building are not great. One of the reasons that anti-summit mobilizations worked more horizontally than Social Forum mobilizations was in part due to the different attitudes to money. In the anti-summit mobilizations money was often treated as secondary—first you decide what you want to achieve politically, and then you see how much money you need and where to get it from. In this way political discussions were separated from financial ones.
In strong contrast to this, the General Assemblies I attended in NY were equating political points and financial ones and as a result the discussion was confused. Someone would make a political point in support of a particular course of action and the ‘concern’ raised or the block made would be based on there being a lack of money—or the ‘need for receipts’—which cannot always be produced. People did not seem to recognize it as such, but this is a capitalist logic. The idea that you can only act when you have money is based on thinking of money as power and as a restrictive form of power. Sure, if there is no money, you have a practical problem, but it is one that is rather easily solved and one that has rarely impeded people from taking action in the past. (If and when the movement needs more money, an appeal can be sent out and people will donate more, or the movement will find ways to carry out activities without money, as they did at the start and as others continue to do all over the world.)
In Oakland on the other hand, the political discussions were separated from financial ones. First a discussion complete with pros and cons would be had about whether or not to take a certain course of action, or how to take it, and then at separate meetings a proposal would be submitted for funds for this action. In the case of finance proposals, there were only clarifying questions and then a vote, no pro/con discussions. This structure seemed to work much better than discussing the pros/cons of an action at the same time as the cost of an action. This had the added bonus of making the meetings far more empowering because every meeting was not about finance (which is framed as a limit to action), but many were about potential for action and created a collective pro-active spirit.
The second damaging aspect of treating resources as limited (when in fact there is no real reason to) is that it leads to competition between actors. If the resources, whether it be money, fame, political options, or decision-outcomes are considered to be limited, then large-scale horizontal decision-making cannot work. This is due to the central importance of diversity to the functioning of horizontality. If those participating in the horizontal process perceive their ability to get funds for their activities to be threatened by your request for funds (because it diminishes these scarce resources) then they will of course vote against it, rather than think about the value of an activity itself. The aim of horizontal decision-making should be to look for ways to make all activities possible, if need be without money, so that this attitude of competition does not arise.
The reason why network democracy is more inclusive than nation-state-based democracy is largely due to the lack of forced centralized unity. A nation-state is a political structure based on the delineation of a geographical area within which everyone must share some aspects of national identity and within which everyone is subject to the same legal rights and responsibilities. This may seem inevitable within a polity, but within a network, there is no clear beginning or end and as a result also no clearly delineated group of people who are subject to the remit of decisions taken—even by the general assembly. Although this can seem ‘out-of-control’ sometimes, this is actually the strength of horizontal decision-making. Networks can multiply and split without creating divisions.
In order for the general assembly to avoid becoming a centralized form of authority that attempts to ‘control’ the behaviour of others (and hence reintroduce hierarchy), there has to be an understanding that when someone or a group of people disagree with a decision, they can do their own thing, they can create a new subgroup, a new node of the network within the existing structures. In order for most people, especially those of us who are used to the nation-state system of democracy, to feel comfortable relinquishing control like this it requires us to think through a few questions, for example: why do we want to control other people’s actions? Do we see their actions as reflecting on ourself in some way? Finally, an important question is, where does this desire to control other’s actions end? Will we try to control everyone’s actions? If so, the task is hopeless anyway. If not, then you need criteria to distinguish between those that need to be controlled and those that do not as well as a way to enforce this arbitrary boundary of inclusion/exclusion. The point being, in order to use horizontal decision-making, participants have to be willing to relinquish their desire to control others.
This means that the general assembly would not be a space to control, monitor, or approve of the actions of participants, but it would be a place to discuss, cooperate and create these actions—it would be a space for coordination and communication to improve the actions taken. The procedures and structures in place through which to coordinate and communicate work better when they retain a degree of fluidity. Once there is a ‘decision’ about how the meetings are going to run, and that decision is taken to be binding for all meetings, all decisions, all circumstances, all groups, all topics, a great deal of flexibility is lost. This makes the process seem rigid and often undermines its effectiveness for dealing with a diversity of people and for adjusting to changing circumstances. And since social movements are usually trying to bring about changes in circumstances, this is a considerable drawback.
More importantly than the practical drawbacks to having procedures set in stone are the political ones. The key lesson from the decade or more of anti-summit mobilizations and social forums, was that meaningful political participation must involve an ability to influence not only which decisions are made and what is decided, but crucially, how the decisions are made. It is in the procedures for how that the lines of inclusion and exclusion are drawn and so continued attention to matters of how and a certain degree of flexibility in how decisions are made is essential to ensure that large-scale horizontal decision-making is empowering to the participants.
Note. This article was originally published in STIR. www.stirtoaction.com
Marianne Maeckelbergh is lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, Netherlands. She has 15 years experience as an activist, organising and facilitating participatory democracy. Her new book is The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy.