The issue of democratic process is central to building a horizontal movement, and one that so many of us have been discussing, debating and getting both inspired and frustrated by for a long time. Good process can be liberating and amazingly effective and affective. Bad process, well, we have all experienced how deeply aggravating and debilitating that can be and is.
This short essay and the below interview hope to add something useful to these conversations, both with practical examples as well as theoretically.
A number of people, frustrated with some of the challenges we have faced in our assemblies in Occupy and Occupy inspired movements, have for some reason decided that it is because of horizontalism – seeing horizontalism as a form of decision making, and one that results in bad process. Horizontalism is a social relationship, and not a form of decision making. Many people in the new movements, from Greece and Spain to the US are using the language of horizontalidad, horizontality, and horizontalism to describe the new relationships we are attempting to create. Horizontalidad was first used to describe the relationships that emerged in Argentina after the 2001 economic crisis. Similar to what is being witnessed now, in Argentina hundreds of thousands of people went into the streets, without political parties or unions leading them, and formed neighborhood assemblies, recuperated workplaces and set up a massive barter network – all as a part of horizontal self-organization. Horizontalidad became one of the main ways people described what they were doing. Not having a similar word in English it has been imperfectly translated as horizontalism. Horizontalidad is a social relationship that implies, as its name suggests, a flat plane upon which to communicate. Horizontalidad implies the use of direct democracy and the striving for consensus, processes in which attempts are made so that everyone is heard and new relationships are created. The idea that horizontalism can be a thing, something that exists simply by saying so, and therefore by its invocation it is somehow brought into practice, is not quite right. We cannot become horizontal merely by declaring ourselves horizontal, or willing ourselves into horizontalism.
Direct democracy does not mean consensus – any form of consensus, though it of course can, and usually does. And consensus merely means striving for a synthesis of ideas, not a specific form or way of arriving at that synthesis. The forms of decision making a group uses is up to the group. From my experience in places such as the newer movements in Argentina or the assemblies in Greece, they strive for consensus, meaning that they try and come to an agreement after lengthy discussions where all speak and are heard. But in the end, whether they vote, have a consensus minus two, three or ten or just get a feeling for the group and don’t vote or take blocks at all is different in each place. The key is to be flexible with what works and does not work and being willing to change the process as necessary
For us in Occupy, and here I will speak to personal experience in New York, though having spoken to people in different places around the country have found our experiences were quite similar. We began with a specific form of consensus process that tried to reach a full consensus with a fall back position of a vote of 90%. While community agreements were an active discussion, they never fully transpired. That was largely because we began with a few dozen people who were not living together or having daily assemblies. We began small and with some things in common. I will not argue that it was right or wrong to begin with consensus –- I am just stating the fact. I do think however that we should have had community agreements in place before the possible occupation – but hindsight is always easier.
Then we occupied Zuccotti turned Liberty. We inherited a process for a few dozen people, and had anywhere from many hundreds to thousands of very diverse people participating in that process. Seeking consensus in this situation, many people agreed, was unwieldy at best and often not workable. But we stuck with it for awhile – we are only talking two months. (By the second month we had a very active working groups seeking alternative forms of decision making, which, through education and a vote of over 90% eventually became the spokes council model.)
The assemblies in Liberty were incredibly inspiring and also often frustrating. Both things can happen simultaneously. One of the most frustrating was the fact that individuals were able to dominate the discussion by “manipulating” the process. It is unclear who was manipulating, if that is even the correct word, or who had the active intention to disrupt, and who was just confused by the process – the result is and was the same. A small group was able to dominate a very large one.
There are so many reasons people want to dominate a discussion or assembly, from the most nefarious, such as infiltrators such as cops and representatives of the political police, to political parties and groups who want to make the agenda fit theirs, to people who are just hurt and lost in our society and this is the first time anyone pays attention to them, so they crave it all the time. It is not about blaming the person with the bad behavior, and better not to since it is a distraction, best is to make disruptions as close to impossible as possible.
This is all said and argued in the context of a directly democratic space that seeks horizontal relationships.
So now to the question.
What can be done about disruptive behavior – intentional or otherwise?
Gopal from Occupy Farms in California explains, “if democracy isn’t structured in, then power dynamics in our society play out, and two of the worst are tyranny of the eccentric, and then the left is just prone to toxic group process: processing the process.”
He goes into detail, with suggestions from their experiences ranging from community agreements from the very outset, including such things as people have to be actively involved in some aspect of the project to rules. The last one, rules, is something we somehow often feel is antithetical to a horizontal space. I believe it is just the opposite actually, without agreements, that we have ways of enforcing, a space cannot be fully democratic and safe for all.
In Argentina the main disruption of the assemblies was left political parties trying to dominate – not something we face in the same way in the US. Over time, and after many assemblies fell apart because of it, the movements have now learned many ways of addressing this question. One is to “out” the person when they are speaking. (The Greeks do this as well now.) So if a person is pushing a certain position in an assembly and you know they are from a party, you make sure the person has to identify the position from which they speak. That way the group can decide as a whole if they want to take up the issue that is often being belabored by the one or few individuals. Knowing who is who, left parties, union representatives, NGO staffers, and from what position they are speaking is key. This is also related to a point Gopal and the Greeks makes about knowing who plans to carry out proposals.
In Greece, something a few of the neighborhood assemblies found made for a more democratic process in their direct actions decisions was participation and enactment based decision making, meaning those people who intended to carry out the action were the ones to vote on it. There is first a conversations on the matter, with participation by everyone, and then a vote by those intending to carry it out.
On the first night of Occupy in NYC we did something similar. Once there was agreement to occupy the park we broke into different groups/assemblies. The people who intended to stay in Zuccotti met as their own assembly. The decision was that since they were continuing to put themselves at risk, they alone should make the decisions regarding the specifics of the occupation of the space.
In Brazil, so as to avoid the centralizing of power based on position and information, the Free Fare Movement rotates roles within the movement, making sure no one is taking responsibility for one group or project for too long. This is one of the ways they help create a more democratic process in leadership and participation. It also addresses many roles that are often gendered and class based.
The below is a selection from a conversation with Gopal Dayaneni, a long time organizer and activist, based in the Bay Area of San Francisco. He is a part of Movement Generation and was a key organizer of Occupy Farms in Albany, CA. The selections shared here go into a number of questions and practices, from the concepts of ‘winning concessions’ to ‘contesting power’ and ‘goals without demands’ to the specifics of democratic group process.
(Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzelini took part in this conversation/interview for their book They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy.)
My name is Gopal Dayaneni, and we’re in Oakland – we’re actually in Berkeley, but Greater East Bay. The borders are arbitrary, so we sort of talk about the East Bay as where we are—the borders are arbitrary and we weren’t the arbiters. I’m part of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology project—we’re a collective of organizers who work at the intersection of racial and economic justice in the urban environment, and ecology, economy and empire—the relationships between those. We’re trying to build the capacity, the analysis, the action skills of communities, of communities or folks organizing in communities of color, working class communities in the urban environment, to see themselves as on the frontlines of the root causes, false solutions and impacts of ecological destruction.
Can you talk more about Occupy?
So we were very inspired of course by the Occupy moment, and maybe even now Occupy movement—it’s still I think an open question whether it’s a moment or a movement—but super-inspired, and didn’t really predict it; in the sense of, we’ve obviously been watching what’s been happening globally, and we sort of understand the world to be in this place of this sort of fork in the road between economic transition or ecological collapse. And we were seeing that play out in all of these interesting ways. We understood the relationship between the fires in Russia and the Arab Spring—for us that was very transparent and clear. So we were looking for what those triggers were going to be. We saw the front line in ecofascism in the United States as being the South and Southwest, where water stress and resource pressure and populations where they shouldn’t be, are creating this sort of xenophobia and libertarianism.
So we were seeing all these things bubbling up, and very inspired by that movement, and particularly because of this idea of translocal organizing that we’ve been really hammering on: this idea of autonomous, place-based organizing and locally-driven goals and demands with a common vision, shared strategies and unified frames. And Occupy presented that for us. And we were like, look, this is it, this is a great amazing opportunity to use and test an idea. And we got involved right away. Both locally, and also as social movement folks being involved in some of the conversations in New York and nationally, trying to figure out how to participate.
So here in (we’re place-based) so for here for us in the Bay area, the two major “Occupys” were Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco, the results of Occupy Calis in Berkeley and Occupy Berkeley, which was very odd. I had already been involved for several years with the Take Back the Land Movement. Take Back the Land was sparked out of Miami by Max Rameau and the Center for Pan-African Development. This was the taking over first of vacant public land and building a shanty, an occupation of homeless folks, and then defending it using a local law called the Pottinger Act, which said you can’t arrest people for doing life-sustaining activity on public land. So they took over vacant land next to vacant public housing, built a shanty, ran it democratically, and built composts and toilets, did all kinds of great stuff, and then ultimately won. The city of Miami and Miami-Dade County gave in to them, and said you can have it, you can develop it however you want. And when it got burned to the ground they had already butt up against their limits of self-governance.
They were struggling with this issue of the collective nature of it and the running of the community as an autonomous village—essentially, was providing political cover for things like drug dealing, for example. There is a great book about it called Take Back the Land.
That was 2006-7, and it burned down, and we had already started discussing what are the next steps. Then the bubble burst—the financial crisis happened-this was two years before Occupy, and Max and Take Back the Land started putting homeless folks in folkless homes, and the idea that the banks don’t get the bailout and the houses do —so taking the houses back. There was a big move about that in 2009, and in 2010 a big “spring offensive” to do all these housing takeovers. And that’s what really started the rebirth of that strategy, not so much of squatting and adverse possession—that kind of movement had been around a long time—but the idea of picking this fight with the banks. And that transitioned very quickly into the principal reduction / mortgage modification fights, which were much more mainstream. The banks can do that, and it doesn’t contest—it wins a concession, it doesn’t contest for power, which I think is really an important aspect of what defines, or should be defining, the Occupy movement, and all of our decisions around goals and what we worked towards. It needs to be about contesting for power, not winning concessions.
What do you mean by contesting?
So for example, with the farm, just to spin around a little bit, we took over this big Gill tract, which was originally 104 acres; it’s now 13 acres. We occupied it, which is the last best agricultural soil in the urbanized East Bay. And it is public land governed under the University of California Berkeley. So we took that land and we started a farm, right away, and with 200 people, day one, we managed to put in about 40 French intensive rows as a direct action, because it was easy for anyone to plug into, as opposed to permaculture or some other form of sustainable agroecology. We went with French intensive row cropping, because anybody could plug into it. My kids were there, my whole family was there, my whole household was there—this was an all-inclusive direct action, and the direct action logic was farming, and the slogan was ‘Farmland is for Farming.’
We could have been fighting to get the University of California to put an urban agriculture farm and centre there. We are not fighting to change what the University of California does on that land—we are fighting to take the land away from the University of California, and put it in a commons. And the closest thing we have to a commons under law in the State of California is a conservation easement. An agricultural conservation easement is the only in perpetuity easement you can get in California. The idea is we’re not trying to change what the University does on the land; we’re trying to change who governs the land. And there’s a very big difference between a campaign to change practice, and a campaign to change power dynamics. So with the Take Back the Land housing fights, right now housing is understood as ‘there’s private property, and there’s public housing. There’s private land, and there’s public land.’ And the idea is to construct that third space of the people’s. So that right now it’s public and private, and we need the people’s. And that’s where we’re trying to create commons centered housing. How do we leverage the land trust model in a way that de-speculates the soil that takes land off the market? That’s where it becomes about contesting for power. And there are lots of ways to do land trusts that don’t contest for power—like buying the land, and then putting it into a land trust. So then it’s a one-time purchase, now it’s de-speculated ideally, but it doesn’t actually change power relationships and power dynamics, and how property is held.
Goals Without Demands?
So for Occupy, it’s this very exciting moment of, “Wow! Goals without demands.” I can imagine all kinds of goals without demands that are truly transformative—like for example, if we all decided we were going to take out Bank of America. There’s nothing you can do to stop us. We’re not trying to change what Bank of America does: we’re gonna eliminate a bank. We’re going to do it one at a time. And here‘s how it’s gonna work, and here’s our strategy. And we build the action logic in such a way that when somebody walks up to an ATM machine, and it’s got an ‘Out of Order’ sticker on it and there’s glue in the card slot, they understand that it’s part of this ongoing campaign. That we took the time to build people’s understanding of what we were doing, so that the sacredness of their property becomes irrelevant. And they can scramble all they want to peel as many of us off our movement by throwing bones, and it becomes this fight over the story and the values of “if it’s too big to fail, it’s too big to exist.” We’re going to destroy the bank, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us. We’re going to make it so unstable an asset that people will withdraw their capital from it in full. And it’s not like is that gonna collapse the entire banking system? No! But it does this thing of saying ‘We have power that is unstoppable, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us. We’re just gonna do it, because we can, and it’s a goal.’
And the Encampments?
There’s three aspects of the occupations: one is the political space it creates for people to gather, come together, and plug in and organize, and all of that. Which I think is really important, and that’s typified by the general assemblies, the workgroups, the organizing that comes out of it—the marches, the demonstrations, all of that, the general strike. We had two –the port shutdown. All of those things come out of that. So that’s one piece of it and that’s absolutely essential. And having a base to work out of is critical. And I think that’s one of the huge values of the Occupy encampments.
A second aspect of them is the prefigurative politics of it. Occupy Library, Occupy Kitchen, Occupy Gardens, Occupy Clinic. And it’s the idea that we are going to model a better way to be in the world; we’re going to meet our needs better together. And I think those were hit and miss, and they were different in different places, and there were better than some, and some aspects were not. Occupy Clinic—the Occupy medics and Occupy clinics—have been some of the most successful, because people with real skills set up shop. There was Occupy Social Workers, and things like that, trying to provide, meet people’s needs. Occupy Library was also a piece that was very popular, because anybody could come and give books, anybody could figure out how to organize it, so it was a model.
Those aspects of it were very interesting, but again, that is one of the places where the self-governance challenge comes, or our ability to do anything at scale becomes a problem. So born out of that idea is some of the kinds of things that I think are the new face of Occupy. Like Occupy the Farm. People who were in the Occupy Gardens, take the 3 to 6 months it takes to find that destructive development project happening in your community on arable land, and do it at scale. Occupy at scale. Plazas are pathetic—we should be occupying at scale. What’s that vacant building, what’s that bank that closed and that building’s still vacant? Occupy it and start something at scale, that models the democratic process, the horizontal structures, the flatness, the participatory nature of it. All of that. So that was the second aspect.
And then the third aspect, and I think the most vulnerable aspect, was the encampments. The idea was that in some ways the failure of the encampments was about scale—about people not understanding the scale of human activity, and what it takes to create a high-density environment in a small space. I think folks—especially folks in the city, who have no idea what it takes to grow food for people, and no idea what it takes to provide water for people, and no idea how much human waste is produced in a single day—didn’t and could not self-govern these encampments effectively. What happens when you create an environment with a high concentration of people, many of whom will have special needs, where the tyranny of the eccentric, and infiltration, and toxic group process can quickly train-wreck your self-governance?
So this gets into the horizontalism for me. Tyranny of the eccentric and toxic group process are the two things that crash our truly democratic left processes, and it’s because of different trends within our movement.
One of which is the thing that people are now calling the tyranny of structurelessness, or the idea that autonomy means lack of organization, or that anarchist means that we don’t believe in structure. Those of us who come out of the movement—the left direct democracy movement—believe very much in structure and process, but if democracy isn’t structured in, then power dynamics in our society play out, and two of the worst are tyranny of the eccentric, and then the left is just prone to toxic group process: processing the process. As soon as somebody becomes uncertain about the agenda, then we spend 3 hours on actually hacking the agenda, instead of trusting the facilitators to just guide us through the process.
So I think the encampments became vulnerable because of this. I think the encampments work when there is a true decision dilemma or double-bind for the State or the 1%. Which is we have to put them in the position where there is an actual decision dilemma—am I willing to use violence in the face of this set of actions, or am I willing to exercise some form of tyranny over this group of people, given what they’re doing? Or putting them in the situation where I’m ‘damned if I do, or damned if I don’t’—if I attack them, I look if I’m beating up on kids. If I don’t attack them, my power’s ruined. There’s this double-bind.
The encampments create the double bind of ‘we can govern better than you’. That is the action logic of the encampment—we can meet our needs better than you are meeting our needs. And the moment we don’t do that, we eliminate the decision dilemma for them. The moment somebody gets hurt in the encampment we have proved that we ‘cannot provide safety as good as they can’. Obviously it’s not true—they cannot provide safety through policing either, in fact worse—but that’s not the popular narrative of safety and security—people assume the police can keep you safe. So unless we create a situation that clearly disrupts the assumption, and that creates a vision that’s better, then they don’t have a dilemma. So the moment it looks like street fighting with the cops, there’s no decision dilemma. Their rule is to respond with force or greater force. So you throw a plastic bottle and they respond with rubber bullets. It’s not right or moral, but it’s not a decision dilemma for them.
What does it mean to do Occupy the Farm at scale? What does it mean to address some of the issues around the self-governance questions around the encampment, but still use the Occupy tactic and strategies around this idea of urban land reform. What does an urban land reform movement look like in the United States? That’s the question this collective here has been asking itself for four years. What does an urban land reform movement look like in the United States, one that’s based on agroecology and principles of ecological resilience and all of that, what does that look like. So this was an opportunity for us to engage in that.
What makes Occupy the Farm unique? One is the action of logic—we don’t talk about violence versus nonviolence or this or that or the other thing—there’s a very clear action logic. If it’s farming, it fits. If it’s not farming, it’s not part of the action. Thus one of our core slogans is ‘Farmland is for farming’. Another one of our core slogans is, ‘If it’s the right thing to do, we have every right to do it’. For me, this was very, very important, because it makes it ‘ok.’ It meant asserting the moral authority to do it, in such a way that everything we did was about trying to make it totally easy to participate. So my family was there every day, and my kids were there, it was their first act of conscious moral obedience, breaking rules because the rules are wrong, because the rules serve the rulers. And we all knew what we were doing, and we did this thing, and you know, on that very first night, one of the things I said in that very first circle was, “If I can’t bring my kids I’m not coming back.” Because that to me is a litmus test of the success of our farm.
And we were right across the street from a school, so we had the encampment, because that’s how we held the space. Every morning you wake up, you break down the encampment, and then you farm. Every night, whoever’s left and is spending the night, puts up the encampment. The idea was the camp served the farm—it wasn’t an encampment for the sake of an encampment; the encampment was a tactic to hold the farm. And part of it is that farmland is for farming: farmland is not for whole foods, farmland is not for gene isolation research, farmland is not for a ball field, and farmland is not for a camp. Farmland is for farming—and we’re going to create this urban farm for the practice and promotion of sustainable agriculture. Another key part of it was, you have to work to participate.
We had the little red hen rule….
The first thing to just be transparent about is, there was a core group of people who launched this thing and set out an agenda ahead of time. The vast majority of people who went on that march on Earth Day—that was this hippy march in North Berkeley called Love the Land—people came because they thought it was a Berkeley-hippy-Earth-Day thing. Most of the people had no idea where they were going on this march, and it ended up at Gill Tract. I stood up on a van, explained what we were going to do, we took care of the gate, and we went through the gate. We never took out the fences, because we need the fences for the deer. Everything was driven by what it takes to run a farm. So part of the thing was we had a core organizing group that launched it, so we had the structures in place to be able to say we are going to transition from the core group of people who organized this thing, to a shared process, so we did that. But that was bumpy, that was hard, and when I say it was bumpy I mean it was bumpy in terms of, it wasn’t flat—some of us had more power than others. We were struggling with the transition.
We were totally transparent about it. Those of us who had more power and who were making decisions, we need a structure in place to be more inclusive of everyone to make decisions, or people like me will make all the decisions. I’m very clear about that, we were all very clear about that.
So we laid out very early on a proposal that said, everybody has to be in a work group, everybody has to work to stay, and if you don’t work, somebody’s going to come up to you and ask you to work. And it doesn’t mean people can’t take rests—everybody has different capacities to work—and there were lots of things you could be doing. I hardly ever got a chance to farm—I was almost always doing media or communications or framing or strategy work—and there were some people who did kitchen stuff all the time, but they got to participate in the decision making. We broke down decision making, so we said, camp kitchen gets to make kitchen decision. They’ll tell us what decisions they made, and if people have concerns about those decisions, they can tell them, and they can take that into consideration, but it was not everybody making every decision. We tried to break that down very quickly.
You know one of the things that’s interesting about the Occupy movement and the demographics of Occupy for a lot of the core folks? There are a lot of folks here who have never been part of a direct action spokescouncil. Their idea of direct democracy is this idea of everybody sits in some massive circle and twinkles their fingers. Folks have not been engaged in scaled interventions of thousands of people organizing mass mobilizations, let alone long-term governance structures, like Direct Action to Stop the War in San Francisco.
We ran that for years on the spokescouncil model. And it dissolved after a point, but the idea that it could grow and contract, and it was scaleable and all that … people just don’t know the history. So I think that was one of the things that was very interesting for some of us. I mean, I’m 43, I’m one of the oldest people involved in the project. It’s really interesting. And you know, people think of me as a liberal, ‘cause I’m trying to think about strategy, as opposed to just like, ‘let’s fight with the cops.’
So then how do and did you talk about structure, accountability and process?
It was hard, and it was never totally perfect. There were a couple things that happened. One thing is that we made a proposal around decision making, and that took several meetings to land, and we knew that was going to happen. And the thing that was truly transformative, I think, about the farm, was there were a lot of people, a lot of young people, from Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Oakland was their political home. They’d found their place, and there was still something that they didn’t know wasn’t working. There was something—it was great but it was hard, there was something about it that wasn’t really right, and they didn’t know what it was. And the farm answered that question, which was purposeful productive activity and a goal. A real outcome, that you could imagine winning, as opposed to an oppositional framework. Very, very few people who were involved in Occupy Oakland and Fuck the Police protests imagine that they’re going to dismantle the state through Occupy Oakland’s confrontations with the cops. I do not believe that the vast majority of them deep down believe that that was the way forward. But it was the first place to offer the political space to have a robust analysis and a broader critique, and to offer this sort of idea of democracy, that there’s more to democracy than voting and shopping. That idea was exciting for folks.
And we are trying to make these big connections around ecology. When UC shut off the water, and we were watering by hand, I would say to people, “We’re going to save any produce that comes out if this, we’re going to save all those seeds.” Because we know exactly what kind of water stress these plants were grown under, and it is the future. It’s the future that we all will face. This is like an experiment in seed saving. The first season will be the most robust, drought-resistant seeds possible, because from the moment they were tiny little starts, they got nowhere near enough water. That first squash, the seeds from that matter. So those ideas, that way of integrating what you were doing with the bigger picture, that had a visionary politic, this idea that it was very purposeful, that the target was clear, and the target was vulnerable, and the claim was morally right, all really turned on a lot of light bulbs, which gave us a lot of latitude to make mistakes. And I think our ability to be (at least for some of us) really trying to be transparent about it, saying like we get that this is hard: we’re trying to make very very quick decisions about strategy, and media, on the fly, and people are dispersed over 14 acres, and trying to gather them all together, it’s hard.
So we did put forward a decision-making process and that was hard but successful, and we floated all these concepts, like tyranny of the eccentric, and toxic group process, and explained to people why we would strive for consensus twice, and if we didn’t pursue another proposal, could call for a vote, and we’d default to 80 percent, but we would really strive to resolve the concerns and all that kind of stuff. We didn’t want that if you couldn’t live with the decision that the vast majority of the group wanted, you would have to withdraw your participation, and that would kill the project. The idea that a critical mass of people withdrawing their participation would kill the project was the protection against bad decisions. We have to be able to execute on the decisions we make. If there’s 20 percent of the people who aren’t going to execute on the decision, then it will fail. That was the idea.
The above reflections come out of a conversation with Gopal, but he would be the first person to tell you that these are collective thoughts, ones arrived at through discussions with others in struggle. I am sure he would also argue that their experiments with forms of decision making and organization come from collective and historical knowledges – put together in ways that allow for more experimentation and the creation of new knowledges. I say this so as to suggest that we, in our movements, take time out to think together more about our processes and experiment with various ways to make them more affective and effective. There are myriad of experiences and people all over the world from whom we can learn and share. Learning from our and others mistakes, as well as successes is key. Taking the time to develop empowering process is at the heart of creating the new affective world we are creating every day – and for the future. The future is in the present.
Written by Marina Sitrin