Is the Decision-Making of the Occupy Movement Bureaucratic

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Marianne Maeckelbergh:

"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-via 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/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 form 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 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 a 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 draw backs 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." (

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