Horizontal Decision-Making across Time and Place

From the Series: Occupy, Anthropology, and the 2011 Global Uprisings

Photo by Maple Razsa.

It is too early to determine what the effects of Occupy, the May 15 (15M) movement and the many other struggles around the world will be, but one thing they have already accomplished is to shift the way many people think about democratic governance―not in one or two places, but across the world simultaneously. Over the past year, I have teamed up with independent filmmaker Brandon Jourdan to make short documentaries about many of the different sites of revolt―Greece, Spain, Egypt, UK, US (see www.globaluprisings.org) and as I go from site to site I have been trying to understand how it is that all these uprisings can somehow be simultaneously so different from each other and so exactly the same. It is too easy to say that these responses are all the same because the causes are everywhere the same: the neo-liberal state and its short-sighted economic policies, otherwise known as capitalism. It is also too easy to say that these uprisings cannot be compared, cannot be treated as similar at all, just because the specific circumstances in each country are so different. There is something far more interesting going on and I think it deserves attention.

For ten years I have been doing ethnography of decision-making within global social movement networks, attending hundreds of meetings in over fifteen different countries in order to analyse the rise of horizontal decision-making as an alternative form of global network-based democracy. Until recently, the fact that these decision-making practices existed was more or less unknown to most, and the radical challenges that they posed to the way we understand democracy were even less known. But now we see these decision-making practices taking a central role within the 15M movement in Spain and within Occupy movements across the world. In each of these places the specific procedures used are slightly different, but what is more astounding to me is instead how similar these practices are in terms of the political values they embody and the solutions they offer for the growing sense of political disenfranchisement we all feel.

Each occupation has a personality all its own, grown out of the specific histories of the place and people and the interactions they have when they come together. In Oakland a history of police violence, urban poverty, entrenched racial discrimination, homelessness, and a violent betrayal by politicians marked on people's bodies and minds gives Occupy Oakland its “unique character” as one activist put it. The history of a strong anarchist movement in Barcelona, and the willingness of contemporary anarchists to get involved in the 15M movement gives the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona a different "character" than the Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

And yet, in nearly every site I have visited, there is a clear "global" orientation (with many references to other occupations, other languages, and other struggles) and a surprisingly common set of political practices. In each location there is a division of labor created by setting up smaller groups of people (referred to by different names: working groups, comisiones, etc.) to organize the everyday practicalities of an occupation or to help solve the problems people are facing like housing evictions, homelessness, lack of health care, no access to education or food. These working groups act autonomously from each other but are in continuous communication, coming together every so often for a general assembly, a "spokescouncil" (meeting of just one or two members of all the different groups) or, in Catalonia, the inter-barrio meeting (a meeting of people from the different neighbourhood assemblies). These meetings are spaces where proposals are put forward and either consented or voted upon (usually with the need for at least 90% in favour of a proposal) or spaces where information is just shared as part of a collective learning process where people take action themselves in their own neighborhoods, but bring the lessons they learn and the problems they face to larger meetings for feedback from others, to learn from elsewhere, and to teach from experience.

Beyond the specific histories of each location, therefore, there is another history, the history of social movement experiments with democracy that are centuries old and which have entered into a new phase of transformation internationally. The practices today find their predecessors in movements of the 1960s, when activists questioned on a large scale the need for a unitary political program of revolutionary change (in other words, the need to determine ahead of time the one thing your movement is “for”). These ideas often took the form of practicing "participatory democracy" and building "autonomous" social relations. Feminist movements especially played a critical role in developing structures of inclusive democracy through trial and error, then the anti-nuclear and peace movements, the racial justice movements in the US, anti-colonial and anti-developmentalism movements in the global South, and later the do-it-yourself and environmental movements―all of which fed into the alterglobalization movement that challenged the right of multilateral organizations (WTO/WB/IMF/G8) to rule the world. They challenged these global centers of power not only in the streets, but also by developing mechanisms of horizontal decision-making on a large scale to learn how to make political decisions across borders, political ideologies and personal interests through network structures instead of nation-states.

This is one of the many histories of Occupy, and paying attention to this history will help us understand how contemporary movements are changing the way we understand democracy―teaching us that equality cannot be declared by some centralized power, but rather that it needs to be continuously created by us; that equality is always intrinsically desirable but never actually possible and that we therefore need to develop structures of decision-making that are capable of challenging inequalities as they arise. For real equality, we need autonomy, so that our differences can be given room for expression―not only in terms of inputs into decision-making (as in the one man, one vote model of equality) but also in the outcomes of decision-making.

Everywhere people are faced with a situation in which it doesn't matter anymore who they vote for, because the economic policies will be the same as long as our so-called "democratic" structures remain the same. Occupy signifies a political impasse at which we all stand whether we know it or not―an historical moment that is defined by the inability of existing democratic structures to fulfil the democratic values we have come to expect: equality, the ability to meet our most basic needs, and a way to have a political voice in determining the most important decisions that affect our lives. Whatever happens to the global uprisings of 2011 and beyond, it is likely these are the questions that will define global politics for years to come.

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