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Circularity. A new strategic horizon

In a circular democracy, plural practices move beyond the idea of state sovereignty towards a sovereignty of proximity that can co-manage basic needs.

Breakout working group from a session at Fearless Cities in Barcelona on 'Building non-state Institutions', June, 2017. Bertie Russell.Looking at the history of the radical left, the twentieth century was marked by two opposite political strategies: the vertical strategy of party structures and the horizontal strategies of social movements. We argue, the new strategic horizon is circular.

In the last two decades, we have witnessed a steady rise of anti-democratic trends and disappointment with politics. Faced with these challenges, contemporary democracies appear vulnerable and unable to defend themselves. At the same time, a radical change is taking place. Movements around the world – through platforms and transnational networks – are experimenting with new forms of democratic practices and political institutions. They take back control, influence politics directly and change the conditions under which politics operate.

What are the core principles of these movements and how can the strategies of those involved be distinguished from previous actors?

The idea of social movements has been exhausted

New streams of theory and political activism have overturned many assumptions underlying concepts such as power, social change and democracy. Today, the idea of social movements has also been exhausted, alongside the conviction that possibilities of democratic change could not be imagined within the existing paradigms. New strategies are emerging. For instance, the tactics of the new municipal movements differ in many ways from previous practices and strategies.

In opposition to horizontal or vertical strategies – such as in the cases of autonomous organisations or instruments of political representation – many contemporary political initiatives are driven by a circular strategy that escapes both the categories of ‘early socialism’, to borrow Axel Honneth’s expression, and the autonomous positions of movements emerging around the struggles of the ’68.

The “return” to the right of the city, as shown by new municipal movements, can be seen as a result of the experiences of previous forms of protest in the context of the 2008 financial crisis, the struggles against austerity politics, and the experiments with Podemos and Syriza. These movements combine elements of non-hierarchical strategies and tactical leadership, as advocated for instance by Hardt and Negri in their recent book Assembly. These elements are formed by constitutive practices, self-transformation, longterm visions and responses to social emergency. This is what we call circular strategy. But how is this horizon distinguished from vertical and horizontal practices?

Three paradigms

Vertical and horizontal principles have been deployed in the past under different circumstances, although neither of them can be linked in a definitive way to one particular movement or political strategy.

However, an attempt to simplify tactics and strategies under these umbrella terms could bring clarity to the old question: “what is to be done?” There are a set of principles we would like to highlight in order to define these two broader tendencies.

Following David Harvey’s reading of Marx, it is possible to distinguish three economic and political paradigms, which also correspond to the three volumes of the Capital. The first paradigm hinges on mass production and large factories. It is the era when socialist and communist parties were shaped against the verticality of production lines, mobilising the masses to confront capitalists with a workers’ vanguard.

The second paradigm is characterised by the increasing importance of the sphere of reproduction for the expansion of market economies. The struggles move outside the factory and in favour of horizontal alliances. Movements and autonomous formations fight for a new set of objectives such as against racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, the destruction of the environment and colonialism.

The third paradigm invoked by Harvey is based on finance capital and the redistribution of realised value in the second paradigm. Struggles are over rent, wages and borders. Rent, because gentrification denies the demands for social housing. Wages, because the job market is transformed by new technologies. Borders, because new forms of colonialism and climate change are displacing large parts of the global population. Given the current circumstances, how can radical subjects respond today to these transformations?

Vertical strategies and horizontal strategies

While the vertical movements are in line with the Marxist tradition, favouring party lines linked to state-based models of social change that reduce antagonism to class struggle, horizontal movements follow a community-based model for social change. A new democratic order is created by people’s actions who take control of their own lives through constant struggles, rather than in a revolutionary event.

Strategies of vertical movements can be understood as primarily or exclusively class-based, addressing ideal concepts and the democratic principle of representation. For vertical activists, the proletariat is the prior revolutionary force represented by the social-democratic party. The ends of social change are seen as prior to the means. Common practices are strikes, the destruction of machinery and the strategic activities of revolutionary intellectuals.

Horizontal movements, on the contrary, implement autonomous strategies, organizing without leaders in a non-hierarchical and decentralized fashion. This is a type of organisation in line with the democratic principle of self-realization. The strategies focus on anti-representation, the politics of everyday life, individual transformation and a non-authoritarian society. The ends of social change must be consistent with its means. They engage in a variety of protests and do not focus solely on class as the fundamental axis of oppression but address a wider range of adversaries.

Vertical and horizontal movements do face important challenges such as the insufficiencies of isolated strategies; the incorporation into the conventional scripts of the state; the balance of power between the movement and the political party, and the challenge to remain capable of change. Even when these movements manage to take state power, this does not guarantee effectiveness or radicality, as the cases of Syriza and Podemos have demonstrated. Too often those who take power end up repeating the practices of those they took power from.

A call for a new circular horizon

The new circular horizon highlights the shift from vertical and horizontal strategies towards circular practices, which go beyond the key characteristics of both traditions and change the underlying assumptions of democracy, power and social change.

For instance, the new municipal movements challenge the traditional notion of democracy as a form of governance and competing political parties. They call for a democracy which identifies social relations, everyday praxis and democratic experiences as a characteristic core of democracy. Moreover, these movements do not subscribe to traditional notions of power. Rather, power is seen as the capacity to bring about continuous change and adjust to new circumstances and experiences.

The circular movements are undoing the leaderless strategies that guided social movements and replacing them with strategies of tactical leadership. These strategies are limited to short-term action and tied to specific occasions, whereby movements are responsible for constructing the strategy appropriate to new demands. And yet, they challenge the notion of social change that confines the achievement of radical transformation either to self-transformation or the ‘occupation of institutions’. Rather than looking at these strategies as isolated principles they regard both as part of what makes meaningful change possible.

What is ‘circular’ about transnational and municipal movements?

Circular strategies can be defined across five key dimensions: radical, pragmatic, plural, open and experimental.

Circular strategies are represented by radical practices insofar as they aim to extend democratic principles to all social spheres by affecting radical change simultaneously within and against political institutions and everyday practices. Circular strategies are pragmatic in the sense that practices seek to respond to social emergencies by providing access to housing, healthcare, food, water, education, and data. Circular strategies are plural because they connect a plurality of agencies in a circulation of struggles following the idea of co-producing, co-management, co-ownership. The fluid relationship between new alliances of activists, citizens and politicians allow for multiple levels of coordination and continuous learning, without having to pass through a rigid central leadership.

Circular strategies are open and experimental as power is circulating and moves out of the centre as the circle becomes bigger and bigger. These practices aim to continuously test and modify democratic principles, procedures and policies by critically reflecting on their practical consequences for the improvement of democratic experiences. For instance, the ends and means of radical social change are continuously adjusted one to the other in order to test how social freedom and equality can best be implemented under any specific circumstances.

Coming up: a circular democracy?

The new municipal movement can be seen as a prefiguration of a circular democracy to come.

The circular democracy to come is radical: social relations are becoming the ends and not the means of democratic politics. By maintaining a relevant anchorage in the everyday practices of people, the function of political institutions then changes. Now they improve both the quality of social relations and democratic experience by involving people in the decisions that affect them.

The coming circular democracy is pragmatic: from a democracy of bureaucracy it moves towards a democracy of problem solving; a circular democracy responds to social emergency by providing access to public services, by solidarity-networks, reduction of costs and removal of bureaucratic barriers. Looking at the networked shape of so-called platform capitalism or the gig economy, circularity represents a tactical horizon that can confront the re-appearance of institutionalised racism and the precarization of life in the spaces where they appear.

The coming circular democracy is plural: a gate-keeper democracy gets replaced by a democratic ‘co-production’ that is based on the idea of the commons. Plural practices move beyond the idea of state sovereignty towards a sovereignty of proximity that can co-manage basic needs such as energy, water, food, housing, education and digital sovereignty. Methods for including collective intelligence inspire and inform new democratic practices and institutions that foster lasting structures of discussions and decision-making: What should be our future investments? What and how do we want to produce? How do we want to spend the public budget?

The coming circular democracy is open and experimental: democratic principles, procedures and policies are tested in short intervals and adjust to new circumstances by reflecting critically on their practical consequences for the improvement of democratic experiences.

About the authors

Rahel Sophia Süß is a political theorist, lecturer and author. She lives in London where she is doing research on radical and circular democracy. Rahel is the editor of engagée, the magazine for political theory, activism and art; She is currently preparing a book on “Circular Democracy” together with Alessio Kolioulis. @RahelSuess

Alessio Kolioulis is a Visiting Scholar at London South Bank University investigating electronic music in the context of urban environments. Previously he worked in the third sector. Alessio is an editorial board member of Eterotopia France and engagée Magazin. @alessioilgreco.

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