Horizontal Participatory Democracy is Worth the Wait

“Mic check!” “MIC CHECK!”   “I just want to say” “I JUST WANT TO SAY”     “that this is my first time here” “THAT THIS IS MY FIRST TIME HERE”      “and that being here right now” “AND THAT BEING HERE RIGHT NOW”      “and participating in this process” “AND PARTICIPATING IN THIS PROCESS”     “is the happiest” “IS THE HAPPIEST”     “I’ve ever been in my life!” “I’VE EVER BEEN IN MY LIFE!”

 A mix of applause, cheering and finger-wiggling was heard and seen from the rest of the general assembly.

The feeling expressed by this newcomer during one of the Occupy Boston general assemblies this past week is very familiar to me. On the last Tuesday of September I was lucky enough to participate in the first general assembly of Occupy Boston on the Boston Common. My first experience with horizontal participatory democracy was so new, so fulfilling, and so empowering that I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the assembly carried on.

Granted, I am just a newbie who isn’t aware of the long history of this process being used in various democratic organizations and anarchist circles around the world. Nevertheless, I was (and continuously am) so moved by the simultaneous idealism and realistic possibility of the large-scale dissemination of this process that I must share with you some of my thoughts on it, as well as the Occupy movement more generally.

 There has been a lot of confusion about the Occupy Boston movement (as well as Occupy Wall Street and the other local movements nationwide) that I would like to address. “What is the point? Why don’t they have any demands? What are their goals?” are the common non-defamatory critiques that can be heard.

It’s no secret what the grievances are – a short walk around Dewey Square will elucidate the general theme of frustration with the domination of our political process by wealth and the monopolization of power in most areas of our society by multi-national corporate behemoths. In regards to the formulation of specific demands/policy goals, this will necessarily take some time. The protesters have an acute awareness of the danger inherent in hierarchical decision-making processes. This is in essence their main grievance. The well-established fact that wealth (as well as racial, gendered, heteronormative, and other types of social privileges) translates into greater social and political authority in decision-making is what is being challenged. Accordingly, movement participants engage in horizontal participatory democracy every day in the various working groups and two daily general assemblies as an alternative, equitable form of decision-making.

Horizontal decision-making is, theoretically, utterly equitable. Of course, in practice, more confident and vocal participants will still have a marginally greater influence over the decisions beings made as they will make more proposals and amendments during the general assemblies and in working groups. Participants in Occupy Boston, along with those in Occupy Wall Street (the only two of the many national occupations that I have been able to attend), are trying to overcome this obstacle by consciously and overtly recognizing the social privileges of each participant. They acknowledge that the most privileged voices generally steer the conversation in our society, and this is exactly what the participants of Occupy Boston are concerned with changing. I should also note that there are currently too few participants acting as facilitators of general assemblies. The long-term continuation of this trend would be antithetical to the horizontal aspirations of the movement. This issue is being dealt with through recurring facilitation trainings that are open to everyone. Specifically, participants from underrepresented backgrounds are repeatedly encouraged to take part so as to ensure that traditional social hierarchies are not replicated within the movement.

Returning to the subject of movement demands/goals, it is not the unanimous opinion of occupiers and supporters that specific policy goals are necessary. Many understandably are disillusioned with the electoral process and representative system of governance altogether given the proven corrupting influence of uninhibited campaign financing and profound lobbying power of big business. Many are concerned that campaign finance and lobbying reforms will not adequately diminish the political influence of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations. This is of course just one popular opinion that can be heard within the movement, and supporters who prefer targeting legislators are free and indeed encouraged to do so. From day one general assembly facilitators made clear that anyone wishing to organize and act autonomously and/or independently of the movement should do so, as respectful freedom of expression is highly valued.

Importantly, though, members of the movement share the aforementioned grievances against the corporate and governmental elite. This shared plight of the 99% is not experienced by each participant in the same exact way. For some it is manifested in excessive debt for healthcare, education or housing, all of which are considered by many to be human rights. For others it is felt in their prolonged unemployment through no fault of their own, but due to market forces that evidently trump human needs in our society. For others it is the classism built into our foreign policy with multi-national corporations profiting off of the deaths of mostly-poor American soldiers and the destruction and slaughter of the poorest of nations. For still others it is simply a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness in a society built and maintained by and for the super wealthy. This shared anger with those at the top of the enormous national (and more drastically, global) wealth gap is sustaining this movement and will continue to do so.

If you are interested in participating in the democratic process of the Occupy Boston movement but are unable to physically participate in Dewey Square, you can still make your voice heard in the many deliberations taking place online. All deliberations online are considered by working groups before proposals are brought to the general assembly. For those of you that are not in Boston, I suggest finding the horizontal decision-making body (aka occupation) nearest to you.

Horizontal participatory democracy is an empowering and exciting –and slow — process. I am eagerly and patiently anticipating the product of this truly exhilarating democratic endeavor.


Nick Delvino is a pizza-maker for Crazy Dough’s Pizza and a member of Class Action’s First-Generation College Student Committee.

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