Participatory Democracy and the Occupy Movement

By Katie Meta

1. Intro and motivation

The Occupy movement began in New York City’s Zucotti Park in September 2011, as a protest against economic inequality and specifically against the banks of Wall Street. Occupy quickly spread, and around the world camps were set up in public spaces, protesting against economic inequality, and organising themselves non-hierarchically, with decisions made in leaderless General Assemblies. The occupations are notable for their lack of a platform or list of demands, as shown in this statement from Occupy Oakland:

To the Politicians and the 1%: This occupation is its own demand. Since we don’t need permission to claim what is already ours, we do not have a list of demands to give you. There is no specific thing you can do in order to make us “go away”. And the last thing we want is for you to preserve your power, to reinforce your role as the ruling classes in our society.

What does it mean to say that “This occupation is its own demand”? I would argue that this expresses a desire for Participatory Democracy; a political system characterised by a lack of hierarchy, in which people participate directly in making decisions that affect them. This is in contrast to Representative Democracy, in which people vote for their rulers once every four or five years but apart from that have few opportunities to participate in decision-making. At least for some participants, the purpose of Occupy is not to influence government, but to replace it.

However the form of participatory democracy practised within the Occupy movement is far from perfect, and despite the best of intentions what happens in General Assemblies falls short of full and equal democratic participation for all. Many people are drawn into this movement by the promise of openness and equal participation, and so when these promises are not realised, people drift away.

In this article I’m going to look at how participatory democracy is practised within Occupy and related movements, show some of the problems that often come up, and suggest some improvements. I’m also going to talk more generally about how Participatory Democracy can be used in other types of organisations. Finally I’ll argue that Participatory Democracy isn’t just something that just happens in meetings, and that is requires a cultural shift in the way we think and related to each-other. This shift requires hard work, but in my opinion it’s definitely achievable.

I’m not involved in the Occupy movement. However I was involved for several years in the UK Camp for Climate Action, which had a similar organisational structure. I’m going to start by describing this organisational structure in a somewhat simplified and idealised way – every group is different so this won’t perfectly match any particular group.

2. Organisational Structure

The main decision-making bodies are Assemblies (or Main Meetings or Site Meetings, as we called them in Climate Camp) and Working Groups.

Assemblies / Main Meetings

This is a large meeting, usually held once a day, which everyone is welcome to come to. There may be several hundred participants. The meeting is guided by a facilitator, whose job is to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to make their voice heard. The Assembly is the only group that can make big, important decisions that affect the whole group. In order for a decision to be made, everyone present must agree to it.

As well as being a decision-making body, the Assembly provides an inspiring experience of seeing everybody all at in one place and feeling the power of being in a large group of people with common goals.

Working Groups

The Assembly decides broad policy, but since it’s very difficult for a large group to make detailed decisions, the detailed work is done by working groups. Working groups report back to the Assembly to make sure that they are doing what the Assembly wants them to do.

An example of how this can work in practice: during the preparation for the 2009 Climate Camp, some people were concerned that the Media Group might say things to the press that did not reflect the views of the whole group. Members of the Media Group replied that they couldn’t possibly take every press release to a meeting to be vetted before-hand. So a solution was found: the whole group agreed to three key messages for the Media Group to use in all their interactions with the press. The Media Group was then free to write press releases and do interviews, within the framework of sticking to those key messages. In my view this was a great solution, since it gave the Media Group freedom to do their work, while giving the rest of the collective confidence in what the Media Group was doing.

As well as assemblies and working groups, there may be other decision-making bodies, groups who have a particular identity, theme, or purpose. This could include: affinity groups (small groups of people who go to a protest together with the intention of sticking together and supporting each-other) groups based on a particular geographical region (such as the Neighbourhoods at the Climate Camps), groups based on religion, feminist groups, or a group such as Decolonise Wall Street. These groups might hold their own meetings, and send a representative or delegate to speak on behalf of their group in the Assembly.

3. Problems with decision-making

Problems with consensus decision-making in large groups / General Assemblies

We usually talk about consensus as if it was a switch that can be either on or off; either a decision was made by consensus, or it wasn’t. In my view it’s more useful to think of a spectrum, ranging from “bad consensus”, through “OK consensus”, to “good consensus”.

Good consensus: All members of the group are empowered, treat each-other with respect, and have all the information they need to make a good decision. They have plenty of time, and they have a comfortable place in which to hold the meeting. Everyone understands what the problem is, they listen thoughtfully to each-other’s ideas, and work together to come up with the best possible solution, taking everyone’s desires and concerns into account.

Most people who’ve taken part in consensus decision-making will recognise that it doesn’t usually go that way. But when it does, it feels great, and leaves people feeling excited and inspired.

OK consensus: The decision was made in a way that was less than ideal, but everyone in the group is pretty much OK with it. Perhaps some members of the group didn’t know what was going on, but didn’t feel confidant enough to ask questions. Maybe the group was running out of time, and so the facilitator put pressure on to make a decision quickly, without exploring all possibilities, but no-one thinks the decision that was made is terrible.

Bad consensus: The decision was a “consensus” in name only; in reality some members of the group are really unhappy with it. There are many ways a bad consensus can come about, here are a few examples:

  • Some people in the meeting couldn’t understand or couldn’t hear, and so had no idea what was going on; the decision ended up being made by the small group of people standing closest to the facilitator.
  • The meeting stretched on for hours, discussing a controversial topic without reaching agreement. Finally most people left for dinner or bed, and the small group of people who remained made the decision, even though it was a decision the rest of the group was unhappy with.
  • The group was pressed for time, so the facilitator put on pressure to decide quickly, When an agenda topic was introduced, a confidant, experienced member of the group said: “I propose we do such-and-such” and everyone agreed, since they didn’t want to be the person who held up the whole group.
  • The agenda was long and many complicated topics were discussed. A person came to the (large) meeting wanting to talk about a particular topic that was important to them, but they couldn’t figure out who to talk to to get it put on the agenda. Or they talked to the facilitator, who said, “We’ll fit that into the section on X”, but there was only 15 minutes allotted for X, with the result that the person ended up sitting through a long meeting, and didn’t get the chance to talk about what they wanted to talk about at all.

There are many more examples. Lazy, thoughtless, and unplanned meetings will usually result in bad consensus. Bad consensus is the default option, while good consensus takes work and effort to bring about, and a particular decision can seem like a good consensus to some people and a bad consensus to others.

The consequences of bad consensus are sometimes invisible. The immediate consequences can be that the group makes a poor decision. Not only do people feel frustrated, but they do not feel motivated to back up the decision with hard work and enthusiasm, and they feel less committed to the group. People who feel this way tend to drift away silently.

A group that mostly does “bad” consensus isn’t really a functioning participatory democracy, it’s probably run by an unofficial in-group. They certainly want to be a participatory democracy, but the reality is that people in the in-group will find it easiest to have a real say. The group tries to be open and partly succeeds, but people who have ties to the in-group (through friendship networks, or similar backgrounds) will find it easiest to get involved. This is what usually happens; not deliberately, but because it turns out running a real participatory democracy is hard work.

I’m going to look more at problems arising from the way meetings are run, and specifically with the role of the facilitator, in part 5.

Problems with Working Groups

Working Groups are set up to do a particular task. For example, some of the Working Groups we had at the Climate Camps were: Alt Tech, Kitchens, Water and Plumbing, Kids’ Space, Workshops and Entertainments, Media, Indymedia, Police Liaison, and Tranquility (like Security, but nicer).

There’s a tendency for Working Groups to be run by a small number of very dedicated, very hard-working people. These people gain lots of skills and knowledge, work 14-hour-days, get burnt-out, and don’t have any time to spare for training others. There is a problem of professionalisation: if you’re the only person who knows how to do the job, it’s much easier and faster to just do it, than to train someone else. And if you’re used to doing the job to a certain standard, it’s hard to step back and let someone else take over, when they might not do it as well as you would like.

The most interesting and empowering tasks are done in Working Groups, and while these groups are theoretically open for anyone to join, in reality it can be hard for outsiders to get involved. Outsiders sometimes have trouble finding out what working groups exist, what work they do, where and when they meet, and how to get in touch with them. This can lead to complaints that there is an invisible hierarchy doing all the interesting stuff, while “outsiders” are only invited to do the more boring and menial tasks.

There can also be an (unintended) lack of transparency and accountability. Since it isn’t clear to everyone what a given working group is doing, the working group could do something that some members of the wider group strongly disagree with.

To conclude section 3: one of the main reasons people join a movement like Occupy is the promise of being able to fully participate. However as a result of all the problems discussed in this section this promise is not fully realised; our movements grow to a certain size, and after that point “new” people find it increasingly difficult to participate fully, and to take on interesting and challenging roles. Our participatory democracy has a scaling problem, where our groups can’t grow past a certain size.

This problem seems even worse when we recognise that, not only do our movements tend to include informal in-groups and out-groups, but these often line up with existing social hierarchies of race, age, gender, sexuality, ability, class, etc.

However I think these problems can be overcome, and I’ll start talking about how to do that in the next section.

4. Transparency / Open Source Organising

Some (but not all) of the problems described in the previous section can be solved by doing transparency really well.

The purposes of transparency are:

  • To make sure every sub-group of the organisation is accountable to the wider group, by making sure that everyone can easily find out what the sub-group is doing.
  • To help the organisation grow by making it as easy as possible for people who are interested in an organisation to find out what the organisation does, and to get up to speed as quickly as possible in order to join in with the group’s activities and decision-making.
  • To make it possible for the work done by a group or sub-group to be replicated or improved on in future, and thus to prevent mistakes from being repeated, and to help the movement as a whole to learn and grow.

The UK Climate Camps and Occupy London (and I’m guessing many other groups as well) intend to be transparent, but don’t fully achieve this, because achieving transparency takes some work and some co-ordination. That being said, being transparent isn’t really all that difficult – it mostly consists of typing up notes about what you did and putting them on the Internet somewhere. I’m going to look at the nitty-gritty of how transparency works in practice.

For an organisation that holds Assemblies, an important step is to put the minutes of the meetings in some publicly accessible space (probably online) in a timely fashion so that anyone can read them. An example is provided by Occupy London Stock Exchange. Occupy LSX also live-streams their Assemblies to the Internet. They’ve put real effort into being as transparent as possible. Nevertheless, it would be pretty hard for an outsider to quickly learn about what decisions have already been made, because they have posted what seem to be word-for-word transcripts of their Assemblies, which go on for pages. An improvement would be to add a short, readable summary of the main points from each meeting, so that people could quickly get up to speed. An example such a summary can be found here: Climate Camp National Gathering minutes Glasgow (PDF). (I admit this is a cherry-picked example, most of the time Climate Camp minutes did not include nice summaries like this, and sometimes we didn’t even manage to post minutes at all!)

Transparency is even more of a problem for working groups, because often they don’t meet regularly, and people often don’t know what they’re doing, or even that they exist. Since working groups do their work in an ad-hoc way instead of in formal meetings, it’s not as clear how to become transparent. I like the idea of a lab notebook: in high school science class I was told to write down everything I did, clearly enough and in enough detail that another person would be able to repeat everything I’d done just by following the notebook. Instead of a notebook, I’d suggest that working groups could have a space online where they write down everything they do, in enough detail that someone else would be able to replicate it.

I was about to write that I don’t think any group has managed to implement transparency at the working group level yet, but then I did a quick Google search and found that Occupy Santa Cruz has an impressive page of notes about the activities of their working groups!

Sometimes the activities of a working group need to be secret in order to protect the safety of the working group’s members, or for some other reason. This always leads to a less-democratic system, it’s a trade-off.

While implementing transparency is hard work, it’s actually the low-hanging fruit. In the next sections I’ll talk about even bigger challenges.

5. Facilitators

In any big protest group there are people who have specialised skills. Some people know how to cook for 300 people. Some people know how to put up a marquee or build a compost toilet. Some people know how to design a flyer, and some know how to build a website. As much as we value skill-sharing, it isn’t possible for everyone to learn to do everything.

Facilitating big meetings is another specialised skill; knowledge, training and practice are required to do it well. However I’m going to argue that facilitating is fundamentally different from other areas of expertise. Facilitators know how to run meetings, how to make sure everyone’s voice can be heard, and how to make consensus decisions. In short, facilitators know how to do participatory democracy. But if you think about it, participatory democracy can only work properly if everyone in the group knows how to do it. So I’m suggesting that, in order to make our groups more democratic, we need to make sure everyone has the ability to facilitate.

I’m going to give some concrete examples of problems that arise from the situation where meetings are run by a facilitator who has specialised skills and knowledge that the rest of the meeting participants lack.

  • Unconscious bias: Ideally a facilitator tries hard to be neutral and fair, but they inevitably have their own views and preferences which colour the way they run the meeting. This isn’t such a big problem if there is a large, diverse pool of facilitators, since in that case the different sets of biases can more-or-less cancel each-other out. However when there are only a few facilitators, especially in the common situation that they all know each-other and have similar viewpoints, the bias can become systematic.
  • Agenda setting: In large meetings there are generally lots of people with topics they would like the group to discuss, and not enough time to discuss them all, so the facilitator has to have some sort of system for soliciting agenda items and deciding which ones go on the agenda and how much time they get. This process can be mysterious to others – people might not know how to go about getting an item added to the agenda, or why some items are included and others are not. Not knowing what’s going on leaves people unable to meaningfully take part. A transparent process for setting the agenda is needed.
  • Power struggles: Here’s a common scenario in big meetings: the group has a decision to make, and an experienced activist and respected member of the group, who I’ll call EA, already knows what the best solution is. EA keeps interrupting the discussion, and behaves in an increasingly dominating way out of frustration at watching the group go through a long and, from their point of view, unnecessary, discussion. This leads to a power struggle between EA and the facilitator. EA keeps interrupting and saying things like: “this is a waste of time, I already know what to do, let’s just agree to do it my way and move on”. The facilitator keeps saying things like “please wait your turn to speak” and “can we hear from someone else please”. EA becomes so frustrated and angry that it’s truly painful to watch, and ends up stomping out in disgust partway through the meeting, thinking “This consensus stuff is a waste of time, next time I need to get something done I’ll just get a few of my friends together and do it without wasting all this time in meetings.”By this point EA and the facilitator probably loathe each-other. EA thinks that the facilitator is a power-mad bureaucratic time-waster, while the facilitator thinks that EA wants to use intimidation to make the group do what she wants. In fact EA and the facilitator both want what’s best for the group. The conflict arises from their different understandings of what the purpose of the discussion is. EA thinks the purpose is simply to make the best possible decision. She knows what the best decision is, so the group should just agree to that. End of story.The facilitator is concerned with having a good process for making the decision. From the facilitator’s point of view, a confident, respected person might be able to convince the group to agree to their way of doing things without really understanding it, but this wouldn’t be a “good” consensus. It wouldn’t leave people feeling empowered and committed, and in fact it would contribute to an invisible hierarchy, where only people in the in-group really know what’s going on.After EA stomps off, the group continues its discussion and quite likely ends up arriving at the same solution that EA had proposed from the start. From EA’s perspective the discussion was a gigantic waste of time, but from the facilitator’s point of view the discussion was an important group learning process which led to a “good” consensus; a consensus that everyone understands and agrees with and feels committed to.In this scenario a lot of struggle and frustration could have been avoided, if EA and the facilitator had had the same idea in mind of what the purpose of a meeting is.
  • Making sure everyone can participate fully: Part of a facilitator’s role is to be aware that some people find it much harder to speak and be listened to than others. The reasons for this include: individual self-confidence, belonging to an in-group or being an outsider, and social hierarchies along lines of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and others. A facilitator should pay attention to who speaks and who is listened to, and uses various techniques to create a space where everyone can participate fully. These techniques could include taking hands (to avoid a situation where only people who are loud and confidant enough to interrupt can be heard), using a progressive stack, doing go-rounds where everyone gets a chance to speak, or specifically asking for someone who hasn’t spoken much to speak.In my opinion the work of learning about the different hierarchies that exist in our society, learning to notice who is speaking a lot and who is silence, and actively looking for ways to create a space where everyone can be heard, is too important to be left to just the facilitator. This work needs to be done by everyone in order for a functioning participatory democracy to be possible.

I’ve argued that the skills and knowledge needed to facilitate a large meeting are also the skills and knowledge that everyone in the meeting needs in order to be able to participate fully. This leads to the conclusion that we need to focus on providing more facilitation trainings, and encouraging everyone to get trained up, and making sure everyone gets practice running meetings in order to develop these skills.

It’s not quite that simple though: lots of people in our movements have no interest in learning to facilitate. Furthermore, lots of people disagree with the way meetings are run. If they did attend a facilitation training they would probably say: “That’s nonsense, if I run a meeting I’m not going to do it like that”.

So we have to start a conversation. We need to talk to those who have no interest in facilitation and try to make them understand why we think it’s important for them to gain these skills. We also need to listen to criticisms of the way we run meetings and make decisions, and be willing to make changes and experiment. The way we currently do consensus decision-making isn’t the only possible way to do it, and instead of unthinkingly following the consensus process we were taught, we need to be willing to question it, and accept that some parts of it might not make a whole lot of sense, and might not work in every situation. Those who hate meetings and hate facilitation have a wealth of insight to offer the rest of us into how we could improve.

Basically, we need to start working towards getting a consensus on how we get consensus.

6. Participatory democracy requires a certain kind of culture

In previous sections I’ve argued that participatory democracy requires everyone to be able to participate fully in decision-making (which, I know, is pretty obvious). In section 5 I mentioned that social hierarchies exist in society which make it harder for everyone’s voice to be heard. I listed some of the strategies a facilitator can use to mitigate this, and I argued that in a functioning participatory democracy everyone must learn these strategies.

I’m going to take it further, and say that it isn’t possible to just challenge social hierarchies within meetings, without also challenging them more generally in our day-to-day lives. Participatory democracy isn’t just a particular organisational structure and it doesn’t just happen in meetings, it is a particular kind of culture. The work and the collective learning process that needs to be done to create this democratic culture occurs in all parts of life, not just in meetings.

Various prejudices are “baked in” to our society, and microaggressions which marginalise and hurt people are normal parts of our day-to-day interactions. In fact, these microagressions are so normal that we sometimes do them without meaning to, and without intending to marginalise anyone. However if people find themselves marginalised within an organisation, they probably won’t stick around very long. Thus marginalisation doesn’t just go against our ideals, it also stops our movements from growing. Unfortunately this isn’t just an abstract idea, it’s easy to find examples of people who have experienced racism, sexism, or a lack of awareness of the particular problems faced by minority groups, which left them feeling marginalised and unwelcome in the Occupy movement. Often these are people whose passion, ideas, and desire for social change would be extremely valuable. Here are a few examples turned up by a quick Google search:

Racialicious: Private Danny Chen and why I will never again reach out to OWS about something that matters to me

In Front and Center: On being Muslim: The hijab and social activism

AmericanPaki: Why I am not protesting at Occupy

In Front and Center: Letter to the Occupy Together Movement

Occupy Patriachy: Petition to address sexual assault at Occupy Boston

Occupy Patriachy: Objectifying women has no place in the Occupy movement

In most of these instances, the marginalising behaviour was carried out by individuals, not by Occupy Wall Street or any other organisation. Some instances took place within meetings and some took place outside of meetings. When organisations are challenged about these problems, the responses are often “that’s just one person’s opinion, it’s not our official policy”, and “we can’t control individual people’s behaviour”. These responses aren’t good enough. No-one wants to be part of a movement where they are officially equal but where in everyday interactions they are marginalised. In order to grow, our movements have to collectively take responsibility for combating marginalisation that happens on the level of day-to-day interactions.

This doesn’t mean that we have to police each-other’s behaviour or conduct a witch-hunt every time someone says something racist or sexist. In my view, a very good start would be for groups to agree to a statement such as “We commit individually and collectively to countering marginalising behaviours. We will help and support each-other to do this work.” Further possible steps could include making information and resources on how to do this work available to everyone involved in the movement, and carrying out other educational activities to support each-other in this work. Many groups are already doing this work: for example Occupy Boston replaced one of their General Assemblies with an anti-oppression training. It probably isn’t possible to completely remove hierarchy from our movements, but the more we work on this, the more our movements will be able to grow.

I’m not an expert of how to challenge oppression, in fact I’m just learning about this stuff myself, so I’ll just list some links that may be helpful for people who are just getting started learning about this sort of thing:

“Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it.

In Front and Center: Anti-oppression resources

In Front and Center: 5 Tips for White Allies in the Occupy Movement

7. Conclusion

In this article I talked about Participatory Democracy in a somewhat unusual way. I didn’t just look at formal decision-making structures, but also at culture, and the way people relate to each-other both in and outside of meetings. I also suggested that Participatory Democracy isn’t like a switch that can be turned on or off, it’s an ideal; it’s probably not possible to get it 100% right (this would be a situation in which everyone is fully able to be heard and to meaningfully participate) but we can always strive to get closer to this ideal.

I made four recommendations for organisations such as Occupy which want to become more democratic:

  • Transparency: record all decisions and actions in a publicly accessible space
  • Aim to have everyone in the group able to facilitate through lots of training, mentoring, and also making space for having discussions about how we run meetings, and working towards a situation where everyone understands and consents to the way meetings are run.
  • Individuals work on themselves to remove hierarchy from interactions both in meetings and in day-to-day life.
  • Organisations collectively agree to support individuals to do this work (perhaps through offering trainings or information).

One thing that’s become clear to me in the course of writing this is that to move towards a functioning Particpatory Democracy is not easy, in fact it requires a huge amount of effort, both on an individual level and on the level of organisations. However this shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, we weren’t born knowing how to survive within a society based on capitalist competition, most of us had to spend 12 years in school being taught how to do this. It’s not surprising that learning a completely different way of organising society takes time and effort.

I also want to acknowledge that making changes within large organisations can be very difficult. Even if you agree with the recommendations I’ve made, others in your organisation may not agree, or there may not be time and space available to even discuss this. So even while I’m making these suggestions, I recognise that it might not always be possible to carry them out. The truth is that, while I do have some ideas about how to take these ideas forward in my own life, I’m pretty sure that what makes sense for me in my particular set of circumstances isn’t going to make sense for others. So at this point I’m going to trust whoever is reading this to think of ways forward that make sense in their own lives.

One Comment to “Participatory Democracy and the Occupy Movement”

  1. Grateful to you for this article

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