Participation as means AND end

In a previous post I made one case for why Occupy Wall Street – and now, the proliferation of solidarity events around the country collectively known as Occupy Together – was relevant to international development. The argument was simple: U.S. policy affects the developing world, and financial policy is no exception. I’d like to present a second argument in this post, an argument that’s more nuanced and less obvious.

Occupy Together: do demands matter?

One of the major questions about the movement so far has been “What are the demands? What do these people want?” To date, my response has been that the movement doesn’t need specific demands yet. In a response to Dave Algoso at Find What Works, I said this:

I don’t think you build social movements around policy. You build them around much more general feelings of injustice, that something is wrong. Policy comes later, after you’ve built up a base of support, and after more institutional actors have joined the movement – actors that do have concrete policy ideas. So while there’s plenty to criticize about Occupy Wall Street, I wouldn’t use this criticism at this point in its history.

On Saturday, the New York Times appeared to concur, as their editorial board published a surprisingly supportive editorial, which concluded:

It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That’s the job of the nation’s leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

Occupy Together’s General Assemblies: process as demand

But let’s shift the narrative a bit. What if ultimately, the point of the protests isn’t actually about policy at all? What if it’s really about process?

Throughout the last few weeks, a severely under-reported aspect of Occupy Together has been the manner in which decisions are made. News reports describe the movement as leaderless and decentralized and throw around the fact that there are these “General Assemblies” that happen in which people talk about where the movement should be headed. But the implications of a movement being truly leaderless are left unexplored. What actually happens at General Assemblies, and the way they are structured and conducted, goes unexamined.

So what does happen? Basically – and I’m basing this off of only what I’ve read and the first General Assembly meeting of OccupyMN, which I attended – a General Assembly is an open meeting in which anyone is welcome, and which tries to make both micro- and macro-level decisions about the Occupy movement on a consensus basis. With so many people involved (there were literally hundreds at the GA last Friday that I went to), most communication is achieved via hand signals. Anyone can “block” a motion on moral grounds, preventing consensus and forcing further discussion. Participants are highly attuned to any structures that might result in concentration of power in individual people or committees, and proposals that could create such power imbalances are virtually certain to raise heated discussion and possible blocks.

In short, a GA is participatory democracy in a pure form, a horizontal, powerless (in the sense that no one has power over anyone else) forum where everyone who shows up to the meeting has a voice, has the ability to shape the outcome, has the ability to block decisions to which they are strongly opposed. In theory, it’s fantastic. In practice, it’s messy, frustrating, inefficient, and possibly somewhat ineffective. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot of appeal. In fact, the team at NPR’s Planet Money took a look at the story last Friday, and concluded that ultimately, Occupy Wall Street isn’t “a movement; it’s a venue… [it] is a model of how the protesters want society to be.” That is, the General Assembly – that messy, endless, relentlessly democratic process – is the kind of democracy that the protesters want, and they are living it out on a small scale. It’s about as radical a reading of the movement as I can imagine.

This isn’t new, and it didn’t come out of nowhere. The anthropologist David Graeber, in his book Direct Action: An Ethnography, makes the case that the fundamental ideology and goal for a certain subset of activists in the 1999-2001 global justice movement was embodied in their decision-making practices. The anarchist circles in which Graeber did his research (and his activism) practiced the same kind of consensus-based direct democracy as what’s now being implemented in the Occupy Together GAs. For them, the process was the means and the end.

To be clear, I don’t believe this conclusion is true of everyone involved in Occupy Together, only a die-hard set of the core activists that have been in the center of the organizing efforts. The institutions that have attached themselves to the movement certainly wouldn’t subscribe to this frame, nor would a lot of activists, probably including myself.

So what does this have to do with development?

Well, “participation” is part of the name of this blog. If we take self-determination and participatory development as ideals to which we strive, what does that look like in practice? For a marginalized community facing the prospect of state-sponsored development projects encroaching on its land, culture, economy or autonomy, does it look like a prior informed consultation process, or a prior, free and informed consent process? If so, who is being consulted with and whose consent is being sought? Who speaks for and represents the community? Is the decision-making process within the community inclusive? Do we care about participation at that level?

In the book I’m currently reading, Countering Development, author David Gow describes decision-making processes in some (but, he makes very clear, not all) Colombian indigenous communities in which something rather similar to that of the Occupy Together GAs is implemented. Committees discuss issues and bring their thoughts to a larger community meeting in which all are invited; the whole community then discusses these ideas and comes to a decision by consensus. The committees themselves definitively do not make decisions themselves, since the broader community meeting is the more inclusive and democratic space. (It’s worth noting that even this democratic decision-making process is not, in reality, devoid of power imbalances. Gow mentions that, for example, gendered power can be perpetuated even in a consent-based process.)

These problems aside, when we talk about development needing to be participatory, is this the ideal to which we’re pointing? My inclination is to answer yes. But I’ve been frustrated in my life as an activist by consensus-based, fully participatory processes, especially when large numbers of people are involved. I still believe in these processes as ideals, but I’m not entirely sure I believe in them in practice. So I have to ask myself: am I wanting for others’ societies what I don’t necessarily even want for my own?

These are important questions, and I think observing and participating in Occupy Together can inform some of our answers. If participatory development is something to which we aspire, the radically democratic nature of the Occupy Together protests offers some insight into the kind of processes for which we may or may not wish to advocate.

Photo above by me, taken at a rally on the first day of OccupyMN, October 7, 2011.

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