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.