October 23, 2017

Mass Assembly and the Political

Mass assemblies are important sites for political action, yet they often are represented as if they are secondary to established political institutions. Political activists and theorists have begun to reconsider their importance with the major successes of assemblies in Argentina in the first decade of the new millennium, in Tahrir Square protests in 2011 and 2013, in the 2011-12 Occupy movement in North America and Europe, in the 15-M or Indignado movement in 2011 Spain, and in recent anti-austerity movements in Greece and other nations.

Mass assemblies were common historically and are still found all over the globe in our own day, yet in particular their present-day actions are often overlooked by activists and theorists alike. Sometimes known as the village or tribal council, the townhall meeting, the neighborhood association, or by other names, large gatherings of people together to make decisions about their own lives are as old as any other form of politics.

Particularly when these meetings make important decisions, they present a site for democracy or rule by the people. In some recent reconsiderations, however, mass assemblies are considered only in more limited instances when mass protests claim to speak for the people to the liberal or autocratic nation-state. Disagreement about whether mass assemblies are sites for political decision-making or simply sites for expressing political views to the nation-state is one of the central debates in these recent theoretical rethinking of the mass assembly.

Outside of electoral defeat and armed movements or coups, mass protests seem to be one of the few ways to produce regime change. Even when elected leaders attempt to ignore the public statements of massed protestors, as recently seen in Egypt and Argentina the assembled populace may still overthrow governments and make known their will.

In Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Assembly (2015) and Judith Butler’s Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), the narrow focus on mass protests assumes that the political is only carried out by the nation-state, or even that democracy can only take place when addressing the liberal electoral nation-state. Yet many activists in social movements increasingly called horizontal movements practice what they call democracy using mass assemblies in venues and locales well beyond the limits of the nation-state. Theorists are also responding to this understanding of democracy as possible in sites Other to the nation-state, such as Rodrigo Nunes in his 2014 publication, Organization of the Organizationless, and Joe Parker in his Democracy Beyond the State: Practicing Equality (2017).

Unlike much writing in political theory, many of these recent theoretical reconsiderations of mass assembly takes as their main audiences the general public. Rodrigo Nunes’s Organization of the Organizationless (2014) is an important theoretical intervention in debates about how decentralized, non-hierarchical organizations succeed. For Nunes, decentralized democratic organizing can resist the ingrained tendency in many to return to centralized, vertically organized structures by following specific practices in certain key areas: running and documenting meetings; decision-making; and actions. By diffusing information frequently, providing equal access to resources, and frequently rotating tasks (including leadership), Nunes argues that the power that tends to collect around a limited number of individuals can be persistently redistributed. Rather than assuming democracy is only found in one type of organization, he argues that democracy instead is a practice permanently open to different future forms that must constantly move between the determined character of “horizontalism” and the indeterminate, the unknown of decentralized open space.

Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini focus on assembly-based horizontalist structures found throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century in their They Can't Represent Us: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy (2014). Recognizing the increasing alienation from elected leaders in many nation-state, they document the mass assemblies used in environmental defense assemblies and towns in Argentina, Zapatista autonomy in Chiapas, the Occupy Plataforma (housing defense) movement in Spain, and assembly movements in Greece. Sitrin is well-known for documenting the assembly and other horizontal practices in post-2001 Argentina in her earlier books, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and Everyday Revolutions. Their analysis focuses on ways that the mass assembly reshapes individual subjectivity in its rejection of electoral leadership institutions.

Unlike Nunes and Sitrin/Azzellini, Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015) centers her theoretical reflections on mass protests. Butler turns away from politics as monopolized by political parties and governments to analyze the power of embodied, assembled collectives to both make statements and produce conditions that provide for the most vulnerable in society. As many governments have followed neoliberal policies taking corporate profits as more important than the survival needs of “the people,” mass assemblies have become key leverage points where the collective body can reclaim the political for equality and the interdependence of the common good. This is a major shift in thinking about the political, for the mass assemblies in Butler’s view not only sever relations with extant regimes but also install new conditions for the political and new rights, such as “the right to appear” or “the right to persist” and survive as a living, vulnerable being.

In breaking with the assumption that government policies are the primary site for expressing the popular will, Butler provides the important recognition that policy makers are often captured by narrow interests that do not serve the common good. Since this is a central problem in electoral democracies, this break makes it possible to question the effectiveness of electoral governments at representing popular opinion and the popular will. In moving away from liberal individualism and towards collective rights and embodied political claims outside those of the nation-state, Butler questions widely held assumptions about social contracts, individual rights, and territorial nationalisms. As even elected governments worldwide demonstrate again and again that they would prefer to protect small group interests, particularly those of the wealthy, rather than those that are vulnerable, populist parties and mass assemblies have begun to grow in strength and effectiveness.

While Butler does not respond to Nunes or Sitrin, she does draw on Jason Frank’s Constituent Moments (2010) and John Inazu’s influential Liberty’s Refuge: the Forgotten Freedom of Assembly (2012) to argue that mass gatherings can displace the nation-state. Mass assemblies do so as an embodied source of authoritative statements by “the people” with significance well beyond individual rights of assembly or free speech. Butler also follows Hagar Kotef’s important attack in Movement and the Ordering of Freedom (2015) on the liberal mechanisms and technologies for surveilling and managing mass mobilities, practices that are supported by Hobbes and Locke in early theories of democracy and by Mill and Habermas in the twentieth-century. Assemblies in the views of these commentators and historians provide alternatives to those who wish not only to make their views known but to establish conditions under which all may survive and persist.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt are skeptical that assemblies can provide lasting solutions and durable social structures in their 2015 book, Assembly, without an established leadership. Negri and Hardt assume that assembly-based movements without the centralized leadership structures that they support do not endure, cannot respond quickly to urgent developments, and cannot draw on sophisticated technical resources. Yet in these criticisms of horizontal structures, Negri and Hardt fall into many of the mythologies used to dismiss assembly movements among social scientists who cannot conceive of politics outside the nation-state. As Francesca Polletta has shown in her important study of assembly movements in the United States civil rights era, Freedom is an Endless Meeting, these myths hold only when the social scientist or theorist ignores such influential organizations as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Students for a Democratic Society. In their assumption that self-governance institutions require technical experts at the helm, Negri and Hardt also perhaps unwittingly reproduce the views of Joseph Schumpeter and F.A. Hayek, the founders of neoliberalism that Negri and Hardt criticize elsewhere in their book.

Negri and Hardt’s theoretical proposal is to subordinate leaders to the assembled multitudes, to make them servants who operate the machinery of government for the self-organized masses. Hardt and Negri emphasize the desire of the multitudes for not only abstract freedoms and equality but also concrete well-being and wealth, relations of access and use for all. In approaching the political in its relations with the economic and the social, Hardt and Negri foreground the importance of production and the growing commons. Ultimately their book develops a proposal to construct organization without hierarchy and create institutions without centralization, a major break with modern political logic.

While Hardt and Negri do not respond in a substantive way to the other theorists discussed above, they clearly take as their primary opponent those who would dare attempt to organize without an established leadership at the helm. Given the importance of leaderless movements for events in Argentina, North America and Europe, Hardt and Negri show their allegiance to the vertical hierarchies that established leaders implant into any organization.  Some long-established communities and organizations centering on assembly practices have determined that the best balance of horizontal equality with vertical relations installed by leaders is achieved with frequent rotation of leaders. While this may prevent any individuals or small groups from establishing entrenched positions needed for clientelism and other common political problems, it also disrupts the rule by experts that Hardt and Negri seem to support. 

This may be why Hardt and Negri overlook the many durable organizations that have taken assemblies as their base: the Workers Landless Movement in Brazil, the small farmer global network known as La Via Campesina, and other organizations. While they mention in passing the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, who use assembly practices as one anchor for autonomous government (with the EZLN military as the other anchor), Negri and Hardt’s overall argument does not respond to the decade of Zapatista success at a decentralized assembly-based social movement.

Hardt and Negri point out that electoral politics is an institution that is coming to an end. In their view representative systems are enduring a crisis brought on by decisions of elected leaders to turn their backs on the middle classes in favor of neoliberal domestic policies of austerity and budget cuts. As voter alienation increases, far right populist movements have gained electoral successes in many electoral democracies.
Mass assembly-based institutions provide an important alternative to increasingly conservative electoral modes of democratic practice. The debates seen in Nunes and Sitrin and Butler and Parker’s writings on mass assembly modes of political decision-making show what the future holds beyond electoral democracy. As nationalism’s claim to “the people” weakens, other politics are possible. These works show that not only are mass assemblies possible, but they are already at work all over the world.

August 31, 2017

Other Democracies: Slum Dwellers International

There are many organizations that practice decentralized, horizontal forms of democracy. These democratic practices differ significantly from the democracies that often serve as the norm for all democracy: electoral constitutional governments. Unlike elected representative governments,  these organizations reject rule by college-educated, specialized experts to find ways to keep governance accountable to those who have little power in social relations, economic life, and national political systems.
Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and their offshoot organization, Know Your City, are organizations that have worked intentionally to decentralize their practices and resources, their knowledge base and their governance. Since 1996, this network has helped to create a global voice of the urban poor, engaging international agencies and operating on the international stage in order to support and advance local struggles. Nevertheless, the principal theatre of practice for SDI’s constituent organisations is the local level: the informal settlements where the urban poor struggle to build more inclusive cities, economies, and politics. By bringing together the urban poor in 32 countries and hundreds of cities and towns across Africa, Asia and Latin America, the Slum Dwellers, SDI has expanded to many countries:  Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Philippines, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, among others.
            Organizationally SDI consists of a Secretariat, a coordinating team, a Board and a Council of Federations. The Secretariat has an administrative and management function. It is accountable to a Board and a Council of Federations made up of nominated grassroots leaders from affiliated Federations. The Board also nominates a Coordinating team that serves as an executive, responsible for overseeing the implementation of SDI programs.
SDI is committed to supporting a process that is driven from below. The Secretariat facilitates, and sometimes resources, horizontal exchange and information sharing programs among member Federations. These exchanges also produce a strong sense that expertise is found locally among the urban slum residents, and not just among professional policy and “development” experts.
Sheila Patel writes in her document, “Understanding the Governance Structures of SDI,” how accountability by and for the informal urban poor works in SDI. It began in India where the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan established national networks and federated slum dwellers throughout the country, and then expanded to work with South African slum dwellers in 1991. From 1992-1996 the two federations worked together to establish developed a set of methodologies that provided realistic alternatives to evictions and, by extension, practical and sustainable ways of mobilizing and organizing the urban poor. This period they also worked with urban poor from other countries to establish similar organizations, as in Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Starting in 1996, the emerging federations began to select coordinators and to expand to Latin America.
In 2002 they selected their first international Board for the transnational organization, and began to develop an emerging management committee. By 2006 pressures had intensified from external funders and other organizations to centralize. Patel writes that “As SDI grew at settlement level, at national level and globally, the financial requirements increased and external agencies needed to feel reassured that the organization could fulfill its expectations and commitments. This called for greater centralization but principles of decentralization and subsidiarity are fundamental to SDI's bottom-up structure. Decentralization demanded a much wider base of leaders to assist federations with increasing demands and expectations. Subsidiarity posed special challenges to a Secretariat that was becoming increasingly professionalized and accountable to external agencies - especially foundations, bi-lateral and multi-lateral agencies.” The SDI response was to establish a Council with three representatives from each fully-active federation in different countries, and to draw on this Council for Board members going forward. Then in 2008 SDI launched a funding organization of its own with a Board of Governors to administer the funds, with members of the Board of Governors including National Housing and Urban Development ministers from representative countries.
At the same time that this centralization took place, SDI also established five regional hub organizations to strengthen local leadership and regional ties. To practice its principle of abdication from professional to local federation management, they also worked from 2013-16 to establish a Management Committee to retain accountability to the national federations. These efforts have taken time, yet they work against the centralized structures demanded by outside funders and other civil society organizations to retain a decentralized structure with local accountability.
There are several other ways in which SDI governs their own affairs without following the centralized practice of their home governments, including those national governments where they are based that claim to be democratic. First, a careful adherence to peer-to-peer exchanges between urban poor community members in different locales and even different nations prevents “experts” from effectively becoming a governing elite. This practice blocks the emergence of entrenched policy specialists who often pursue their own narrow interests rather than the interests of marginalized and impoverished community members.
Local funding of initiatives through savings plans prevents s the centralized distribution of tax monies and other resources from being monopolized by elected leaders distant from the urban slum communities and their interests. SDI’s goals are to serve the poorest of the poor, which centralized national governments have often not been able to serve effectively. Even areas that practice democracy through elected governments have found that wealth and power inequalities remain, and democracy does not mean a reduction in inequality. So if informally organized urban slum communities wish to take their lives into their own hands, SDI provides one means to do so. 

Note: Thank you to Jamie Helberg for research assistance on this post.

July 31, 2017

Defend Democracy: Tactics to Trump Tyranny, Part 2: Concrete Actions

                Some democracies lose their ability to give all citizens equal power over their lives. If you feel you live in such a society, there are many concrete things that allow you to reclaim your democracy. These concrete actions may differ some, depending on the type of society in which you find yourself. Yet there is also significant overlap across different settings when acting to revive democracy.
                Those who live under dictatorships have been successful in strengthening democratic social structures as a step towards overthrow of autocratic rule. The recent success of Tunisia in such a transformation is only one of a long history of countries that have reclaimed their governance practices from centralized authoritarianism. These successes have been analyzed by Gene Sharp and other commentators and organizers.
Success at decentralizing power often seem to come from a careful, strategic effort to revitalize local organizations and dislodge centralized power. These efforts can come from coordinated work to strengthen social institutions while gradually beginning to challenge the authority of centralized power structures. This work may take the simple form of religious organizations, cultural associations, sports clubs, trade unions, student associations, village councils, neighborhood associations, gardening clubs, human rights organizations, musical groups and literary societies, and other bodies. (Sharp, 4th ed.,  22)
So reclaiming decentralized power can start with the widespread revitalization of community bodies that provide a structural base for governing community affairs. Some of these organizations may attract the attention of authoritarian elites, such as trade unions or human rights organizations, but many others may operate freely for a long time without such attention.
In nations where electoral democracy is seemingly alive and well, even if power inequalities remain widespread, many concrete actions will contribute to increased control over social relations. In the United States after President Trump was elected, for example, many feared that their status as a democracy might be at risk. As is the case when normalized ideas of what keeps a democracy alive are threatened in other electoral nation-states, there may be a temporary rush to strengthen important institutional supports for electoral democracy.
One group of organizations that often receives support in times when electoral democracy seems threatened are press and media organizations. Organizations like investigative journalism sites and the Committee to Protect Journalists or the Alexia Foundation and PEN or sites that leak government secrets often receive support when governments attempt to limit information and the available range of viewpoints. If human rights still seem like they might strengthen democracy, then civil liberties or constitutional rights or women’s rights organizations may appear to be an effective approach. For those who believe in equality, questions about wealth inequality or racism or xenophobia motivate some to turn to identity-based organizations to fight inequality. For those who trust elected officials and expert policy makers, they may turn to these leaders to strengthen democracy. For those who believe that election funding has made accountability to all impossible for elected leaders, they may attempt to reclaim government from corporations and lobbyists. Others may attempt to hold elected leaders accountable to voters by investigating their voting records and writing letters and emails or calling elected representatives, or even attending town hall meetings.  
If you have grown to distrust electoral democracies as a way to achieve equality, then you may put your efforts into reviving democratic practices that redistribute power more equally. There are two key ways to decentralize power for those interested in democracy beyond elections and other practices that produce inequality. First are those structures that protect the general interest. Common examples of these structures are mass assemblies, village or town meetings, and other occasions where all community members are present. These structures confront those who pursue their own narrow interests with the assembled multitudes who may pursue policies and practices that serve the general interest.
Second are practices that produce consensus. Rather than marginalizing a minority, they bring all parties together to encourage them to find solutions that satisfy all. By taking consensus at their center, rather than elections, these practices teach participants how to work across disagreement and difference constructively.
There are many approaches to building consensus and many aspects to transforming habits and expectations needed to make consensus possible. Many have accepted as normal those competitive efforts that defeat opponents rather than build constructive group relations. So consensus depends on changing goals and general objectives. Consensus also depends on all present clearing room in discussions so that all may speak, rather than assuming that only the highly educated or the wealthy or men will dominate discussion. Many organizations have produced helpful guides to practicing consensus in meetings as well, from small meetings to large gatherings, such as the mass meetings in large urban plazas in Spain or in other settings.
For some, democracy is only possible when elections have been left behind and other forms of democratic practices take center stage. For others, electoral democracy as found in the European-style modern nation-state is the only possible form of democracy. But all have work to do if they wish to strengthen democracy in practice, whether in Tunisia or the United States or in social spaces where a lack of democracy produces political urgency.