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Experiments in democracy and diversity within the Occupy Movement(s)

Horizontal democracy attempts to ensure equality by embracing diversity and conflict. Within these political structures, diversity is not a problem that needs to be resolved: there is no narrative of uniformity, no shared identity (national or otherwise) and no predetermined ideology.

Since the start of the Occupy movement, many commentators have offered their critique. The movement has no demands, they said, it has no structure, it doesn't stand for anything, it's just a conglomeration of random people with nothing in common, and so on. But, if we take the time to look more closely, we quickly see that the Occupy movement embodies a crucial and important political message that is clear to those who participate. And far from having no structure at all, Occupy inherited a complex political structure that has been actively developed for nearly half a century. The fact that this structure is not perfect, does not mean that it is not there. With the rise of the Occupy movement this political structure, referred to differently everywhere, began to get a common name: horizontality. Horizontality is a term that is used to refer to a fiercely egalitarian, decentralized, networked form of democratic decision-making and it is offered by this movement not as a demand, but as an alternative political system to replace representative democracy. This brief article explores some of these experiments in democracy with an emphasis on the history and political importance of these practices.

1-year Occupy: a film by Marianne Maeckelbergh and Brandon Jourdan.

The neoliberal nation-state and globalization 

A brief trajectory into political histories is essential to understand the contribution to democratic practice that Occupy and related social movements are making. With the rise of the neoliberal state, powerful economists and political pundits argued that the nation-state should refrain from intervening in the economy. In practice, this did not mean that the state no longer intervened, but that it intervened only to create the circumstances deemed necessary for the 'free market' economy and for maximizing profit. The particular role of the state that was withdrawn was that of the state as a means to redistribute resources and guarantee a rather minimal level of social rights – provision of social services, medical care, minimum wages, labour laws, education, environmental protection and other social safety nets. 

Long before Occupy and the economic crisis, there was already much debate on the growing 'democratic deficit' and increasing 'globalization' and democracy found itself confronted with a crisis of scale comparable to that which the French revolutionaries confronted when they tried to translate Athenian city-based democracy to the scale of the nation-state. Today, many problems in need of solutions have became increasingly global: the source of a problem often lies far away from where the problem needs to be resolved and individual nation-states are often incapable of solving problems on their own. The rise of multi-lateral organizations such as the WTO, IMF and G8/G20 to tackle these problems has only reinforced the crisis of representation by removing the most important sources of decision-making power to a place even further from the citizen's doorstep.

Now, in the aftermath of the economic crisis this lack of meaningful representation has taken on new urgency. Nation-states are increasingly incapable of representing the interests of their citizens. National governments are tied to neoliberal economic policies that erode social rights. An important factor for the current declining trust in the state is that no matter who you vote for, no matter who is 'representing' you, today, there is only one economic policy option – everyone has to cut the budget and enforce austerity. No government today has the political power to refuse this mandate that comes not from the people, but from the spectre of the ‘market’ and, ultimately, from the ideology of capitalism in which maximizing profit is paramount. This uniformity of economic policy has eroded the powers of formal democratic institutions, leaving governments with no real political or economic choices. The economic crisis therefore has to be understood also, and perhaps most importantly, as a crisis of democracy.

Diversity, equality and democracy

Given the inability of existing democratic structures to embody the democratic values they claim to represent, it is not surprising that movements have emerged internationally to expose this gap and to develop new structures of democracy that are better equipped to fulfill these democratic values. These alternative democratic structures can be found in the everyday decision-making processes of Occupy and related movements. These ongoing decision-making practices are of analytical importance not just because the Occupy movement is using them, but because they are a culmination of fifty years of experimentation with democracy by social movements from the 1960s onwards, experiments that draw on much older democratic traditions. Occupy and related movements in 2011 and beyond represent the historical moment in which this horizontal decision-making structure took hold internationally and spread to millions of people worldwide, and it did so at a time of economic crisis when dominant democratic structures are declining in legitimacy. In this sense Occupy is a lens into a much larger democratic transition that may never fully materialize but which is nevertheless important for the insights it sheds on how democracy works and when and how it fails. 

The key values that underlie the horizontal decision-making of contemporary movements are values that start to take centre stage within social movement organizing in the 1960s. Although egalitarian decision-making has always existed in some form and there is no way to identify a moment when it was invented, the 1960s represent an historical moment when the ideas of participatory democracy, autonomy and anti-systemic ideologies (including anarchism) became more influential on social movement repertoires internationally. The 'new left' arose in part in response to growing distrust of Communism with a capital C after the uprising and subsequent Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which laid the foundation for an almost universal condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. For some movement actors in Europe this resulted in a complete rejection of communist politics and for others only a rejection of Stalinism. Many of those active in student movements of the 1960s in Europe, the US and Latin America had been expelled from their respective communist parties because they refused to adhere to a programmatic notion of revolutionary change – embodied in the party line – a programme over which they often had little or no influence. All of these and many more historical transitions, perhaps most importantly the rise of feminism, led to the emergence of egalitarian groups that rejected both the hierarchy and determinism of the 'old left'. 

The 'new left' not only rejected the unitary and programmatic politics of the 'old left' but they also began to devise democratic practices and structures that have since been developed by feminist movements, anti-nuclear movements, peace movements, Do-It-Yourself and autonomous movements (all heavily influenced by anarchist philosophy and practice) and many more. In the 1990s the encuentros of the Zapatistas in Mexico and similar projects throughout Latin America entered global movement repertoires, merged with the ongoing experiments in participatory democracy, and quickly became central to the guiding principles of international movement networks such as the People's Global Action, anti-summit mobilizations and to a lesser degree World and European Social Forums – known collectively as the alterglobalization movement or global justice movement.

Horizontal decision-making today has built on this long history to develop highly structured, yet fluid systems of democratic decision-making that incorporate many of the critiques and lessons learned from these previous movements. First, horizontality is premised on the rejection of fixed representation as a political structure. Second, it functions through the political structure of networks and not the geographically delineated space of the nation-state. Third, it embraces a rejection of uniformity as the guiding ideal of democratic deliberation in favour of a system that fosters diversity. Finally, the movement takes equality to be always desirable but never fully achievable and equality is therefore treated as something for which each member of the polity has to take active responsibility. This creates a decision-making process in which the participants are continuously challenging (with varying degrees of success) inequalities and discriminations as they arise within their own structures of governing. 

These movements' democratic practices are diverse and take on slightly different mechanisms in each location, but the general structure is surprisingly similar across contexts (in Europe and North America at least) and consists of large assemblies and decentralized smaller groups each of which assume particular tasks, such as medical care, meeting facilitation, kitchen, legal support, communications, outreach and so on. These smaller groups prepare proposals that are presented at the large assemblies to be discussed, improved upon, re-written and agreed. When there is conflict about the proposal, there is a round of discussion either by splitting up into smaller groups or in the large assembly, and the proposal is usually amended accordingly. If some participants remain fundamentally opposed to the proposal, then the proposal is usually sent back to those who drafted it who then attempt to re-write the proposal in a separate smaller meeting together with those who raised concerns about the proposal. Often, however, proposals are written in such a way as to allow for multiple courses of action so that no one feels as if their own interests or preferences are excluded. Proposals are also in practice often non-binding, so that even if it is decided, for example, to leave the square and stop the occupation, each individual still decides for themselves whether they will stay or go.

Horizontal democracy attempts to ensure equality not by developing structures of authority and enforcement through which equality can be 'declared' and demanded but rather by embracing diversity and conflict. Within these political structures, diversity is not a problem that needs to be resolved: there is no narrative of uniformity, no shared identity (national or otherwise) and no predetermined ideology. In the very way decision-making is structured, diversity is treated as a desirable characteristic for the polity, one that should be embraced and encouraged by the political structures developed. This emphasis on diversity and multiplicity represents a rejection of the normative ideal of univocity that guides nearly all previous democratic theories and models. In this way horizontal democracy, for all its faults, sets itself apart and is better-equipped for incorporating people from various backgrounds and with divergent aims and interests. 

This rejection of uniformity is made possible in part by the use of network structures instead of geographical space as the political structure through which to organize the allocation of resources and decision-making power. While nation-states are organized around clearly delineated geographic areas that encompass a (more or less) clearly identifiable set of people, networks have no predetermined start or end and therefore no fixed membership. This indeterminacy of networks, in turn, leads to one of the most important political dimensions of the network: that it can be split without creating divisions. Whereas in nation-states or traditional political parties and formal organizations, disagreements have to be resolved and when they cannot be resolved it leads to either repression, civil war, sects, permanent divisions or exclusions, within networks groups and people who do not agree with one another, can pursue different projects and aims and still remain connected. This fosters diversity because it allows for multiple outcomes to emerge from a single decision-making process, thereby satisfying and incorporating the interests of more people.

The latest film by Marianne Maeckelbergh and Brandon Jourdan, chronicling the September 2012 protests in Madrid to demand the resignation of the government and an end to police brutality.

Developing democratic decision-making structures from the starting assumptions that representation and uniformity are not necessary components of successful governance and that equality is not something we can declare into existence, but rather something that needs to be continuously worked on, opens up a whole new repertoire of potential structures and procedures for democracy. But there are still some limitations, which have become increasingly obvious in the past year of proliferation of horizontality. These limitations bring us back to the original question about the relationship between democracy and the economy. If we have to understand the economic crisis as also a crisis of democracy, then it is worthwhile to analyse the political structures of horizontality as also informed by and having an impact upon the economy. It is not enough to merely transform the way that we understand equality, participation, conflict, unity – though it is definitely a great place to begin – but we have to develop an analysis of how each of these emancipatory political structures are limited by or can perhaps form challenges to capitalist economic relations. If horizontality is going to prefigure an alternative and more egalitarian political society, it will need to confront assumptions about resources as 'limited', challenge our tendency to resort to competition over those resources, and perhaps most importantly given the large scale evictions and foreclosures occurring worldwide, it will need to confront the fundamental validity of private property as the basis for a democratic public order.

This article is part of the Creating Publics, Opening Democracies partnership, funded by the Open University. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

About the author

Marianne Maeckelbergh is Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, Netherlands and is the author of The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalization Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy (Pluto Press, 2009). She has been active in grassroots politics since the early 1990s and is currently working on the film series www.globaluprisings.org.

 


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