Could the Occupy Movement’s General Assemblies Replace Today’s Parliaments and Legislatures?

As the Occupy movement continues to sweep across the globe, having already toppled dictatorial governments and shaken up the political landscape in country after country, from North Africa to North America by way of Southern Europe, one cannot fail to be struck by its remarkable power and appeal.


Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the movement’s attractiveness is rooted in the one characteristic that most readily distinguishes it from the dominant protest cultures of earlier eras: the uncompromising inclusiveness and participatory democracy that it insists upon in its General Assemblies.


To be sure, this insistence on egalitarian inclusion and participatory horizontalism is often disappointed. Being a movement that reflects the personal and political limitations of its diverse participants, not to mention the hierarchies that pervade our communities and distort our personalities, the General Assemblies sometimes make mistakes and exhibit imperfections; they sometimes fall short of living up to the movement’s highest ideals.


A few critics from the traditional Left (like this onethis one and this one) have tried to seize upon these shortcomings as proof that the movement is altogether inferior to the excellent struggles that they themselves led in years past, when one really knew how to conduct a Serious protest. Whether anyone sincerely believes these fantastic tales about how effective protests used to be, before the Occupy movement came on the scene and ruined everything, is an open question. What is certain is that a little griping from the sidelines will do nothing to dampen the spirits of the movement’s participants. 


As it turns out, the sharpest and, above all, the most constructive criticisms of the missteps and maladies of the movement have come from within: from the Indigenous, feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, union and anti-poverty organizers within the ranks of the Occupy movement itself. But they have raised these criticisms and concerns as active participants in (or ardent supporters of) the General Assembly process, committed to its success and convinced of its importance. As such, these criticisms arise, precisely, from a deep love for the movement – a passionate identification with its fate that makes one all the more sensitive to the urgency of addressing the problems that hold the General Assemblies back from realizing their full potential.


Why have so many fallen in love with this struggle and its forms? Why does it act like a magnet for working-class people, drawing them into the streets, but also provoking thousands and thousands of them to post pictures of themselves on movement websites, holding up the now-familiar handwritten “I am the 99%” notes, in which they declare their new-found class consciousness, eagerly embracing the new language of class being forged within the movement? Why do so many participants in the General Assemblies emerge from the process, no doubt with a certain frustration at the slow pace or the occasional lack of focus, but in almost every case with a palpable sense of exhilaration and excitement that here, at last, they have been given the chance to find their voice within a social movement, contributing individually to the common project of standing up together, once and for all, against the tyranny of the 1%? What is it that they see in this movement? Why is this process so different, and so much more attractive to working-class people, than previous attempts at organizing opposition to neo-liberalism and the corporate agenda?


Could it be that they see, not just what these General Assemblies are today, but what they could be tomorrow? So far, the Assemblies have been confined to serving the pragmatic role of coordinating the ongoing Occupy encampments, along with the communicative role of letting people express their opinions to one another in public. But many of those most excited by the process seem to sense, at least viscerally if not yet intellectually, that the General Assemblies may have the potential to offer us something more: a new model of how we might govern ourselves democratically, transforming ourselves and our societies in the process.


Let’s stop to reflect on this prospect. Can we actually consider dismantling our dysfunctional and corrupt legislatures and parliaments altogether, in order to replace them with these new, evidently far more inclusive, grassroots and participatory General Assemblies?


To those who cannot yet imagine a politics that goes beyond Demands, Programs and Parties, the very question is unsettling. And yet, given the way that the Occupy movement, and the new democracy of its General Assemblies, has begun to resonate with working-class people, from Egypt to the United States and beyond, it is not clear that we can any longer avoid asking it. Can we replace the representative-corporate democracy of the 1% with the participatory-popular democracy of the 99%?


Unlike many of the questions raised by the Occupy movement, this one has a short and simple answer: yes, we can.


Unfortunately, we have learned to think of this phrase as an advertising slogan relentlessly promoted by exactly the sort of person increasingly recognized as a barrier to genuine democracy: a professional politician, committed as politicians generally are to serving the interests of the rich and powerful, or as we now say, the 1%.


But this affirmation and insight – that yes, we can govern ourselves, and no, we do not need politicians, bosses or bureaucrats to dictate to us how best to run our communities, organizations, and workplaces – is at the heart of the Occupy movement’s most transformative and liberating possibilities. And it is exactly why we need to embark on a conversation about whether, and how, to embrace the radicalism implicit in this insight.


Today, the percentage of Americans who approve of the US Congress has sunk to a mere 13% (Gallup poll, October 2011). There is every reason to expect that its well-deserved reputation for corruption, incompetence, and indifference to the fate of the average citizen will lead its popularity to decline still further in the years ahead. By contrast, a full 67% of New York residents say they support the aims of Occupy Wall Street, compared to only 23% who say they do not (Quinnipiac poll, 17 October 2011).


Perhaps this gap between the public’s scorn for official democracy and its increasingly exuberant embrace of the new General Assembly democracy, shouldn’t surprise us. The Assemblies thrown up by the Occupy movement, most famously in Tahrir Square, Syntagma Square, and Zuccotti Park, have tried hard to become everything that present-day political systems will never be: radically participatory, broadly inclusive, responsive to the concerns of marginalized voices, animated by a spirit of solidarity, and driven to promote the public good and to uphold the most rigorous understanding of social justice. Having seen these Assemblies in action – and notwithstanding their evident deficiencies and undeniable shortcomings – more and more people are bound to ask themselves, “Can we bear to return to the corrupt and contemptible farce of official politics? Can we stand to listen any longer to the self-serving platitudes that our hapless politicians spew at us in the course of their corporate-funded political campaigns?” And to that question, there can only be one answer: “No, we cannot.”


It is this refusal that now draws people, in their millions, into the parks and squares of cities, towns and villages around the world: this need to say No to politics-as-usual. But are they ready to say Yes to their own capacity to take charge of their communities, and to send their politicians packing?


Even some of those who have already fallen in love with the movement may still wonder: are the General Assemblies really a viable alternative to the political system of the 1%? Isn’t this proposal a little “too easy”? It would, no doubt, be too simple to suggest that the Assemblies, exactly as they now exist, could immediately replace today’s legislatures and parliaments. We would need a much more extensive and complicated system: assemblies would have to be set up within workplaces, in every neighborhood, and regional federations would have to be established. There would have to be systems put in place for coordinating all the different assemblies and resolving conflicts between them. We would have to develop efficient alternatives to market regulation and bureaucratic administration. And we would need ways for the Assemblies to solicit policy proposals and to commission institutional restructuring plans that could be drawn up by teams of specialists, for refinement and possible adoption by the Assemblies themselves.


As we consider the viability and appeal of this long-range transformative agenda for the Occupy movement, word needs to get out about all that has already been done to prepare the path before us and to empower us to take these radical steps. We do not start from scratch, by any means. Thousands of community organizers, economic democracy activists, social researchers, and political scientists have been working on these issues for many years.


Harvard political scientist Archon Fung, to give an example, has been researching the effectiveness of systems of “empowered participatory deliberation,” very much like our General Assemblies, to enable people to take grassroots control over aspects of their lives previously administered from above by the state. His empirical studies (see his book, Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy and the website he co-founded, participedia.net) have shown how effective and empowering these practices can be.


In a similar vein, and sometimes in collaboration with Fung, the influential political theorist Erik Olin Wright has developed a framework for systematically analyzing the strengths and weakness of different models of what he calls “social empowerment,” the control of economic and political life democratically by means of self-organization from below, the details of which are documented in his book, Envisioning Real Utopias.


Another political scientist, Stephen Shalom, has gone a step further and proposed a possible design for an entire political system, which he calls “Participatory Polity,” or “ParPolity.” It is based on what he calls “nested councils,” that is, neighborhood Assemblies that make decisions on neighborhood affairs directly, but also send a delegate to a citywide Assembly to deliberate on matters affecting the whole city or town; the citywide Assembly then sends a delegate on to the regional Assembly, and so on. Each of Shalom’s Assemblies or “councils” is run on a participatory-democratic basis, and there are no professional politicians in the system at all.


But what about the economy? Most participants in the Occupy movement already sense that, in the long run, the General Assemblies cannot succeed if the real social power continues to reside in the boardrooms of the big corporations – the inner sanctums of the 1%. Fortunately, several economists have been developing detailed models for an institutional redesign of our economic systems that would replace the profit motive by the public interest, and allow participatory-democratic deliberative forums, that is, Assemblies, to make many of the key economic decisions now made by profit-driven corporations. One example is the model for a “participatory economy” proposed by Robin Hahnel and Michael Albert, in the book The Political Economy of Participatory Economics, and again in Hahnel’s Economic Justice and Democracy and Albert’s Parecon: Life After Capitalism. In this model, participatory-democratic Assemblies or councils use an efficient system of facilitated coordination to deliberate together about how best to allocate resources in the public interest. The participatory economy model also includes Assemblies within workplaces to replace today’s system of authoritarian management, while ensuring that individuals still get to make their own choices about what they want to consume.


Another economist, Pat Devine, in his book Democracy and Economic Planning, has proposed a different model of economic democracy, in which a system of “deliberative democracy” gives the public the leading role in shaping the direction of economic development, prioritizing the public interest over private gain by means of a process that he calls “negotiated coordination.”


These institutional redesign proposals are important. But important, too, is the practical organizing work that has been done by thousands of activists around the world to put participatory-democratic ideas into practice. Just this month, in Brooklyn, a quick subway ride from the Occupy Wall Street encampment, an exercise in participatory budgeting has already gotten underway. The New York Times described it like this: “The process will begin this fall, with neighborhood assemblies at which constituents can suggest needs in their communities and ideas for projects. The most active volunteers will meet over the fall and winter to discuss the suggested ideas, determine their costs and then present the options to the public; residents at least 18 years old will then cast ballots on which projects they want to see financed. Those projects will then become part of the city’s 2013 capital budget.” This sort of participatory budgeting process, utilizing Assembly democracy, was introduced in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but has now spread to hundreds of cities, the world over. It can and should be integrated into the institutional repertoire of the Occupy movement.


And then there is that under-appreciated expression of the same grassroots-democratic impulse that animates our General Assemblies: the cooperative movement. It is a little-known fact that more Americans are members of cooperatives than have investments in the stock market. Some of these cooperatives are more vibrant and participatory than others, but around the world many millions of people participate in worker cooperatives, managing their own workplaces on a democratic and non-profit basis, and housing cooperatives, setting their own “rent” levels democratically, with no need for a landlord or a “housing authority” to tell them what to do with their collectively owned and democratically run buildings. This model of grassroots, non-profit, participatory-democratic cooperation can and should be taken up by the Occupy movement as one way to spread the General Assembly process beyond the confines of the public squares and into every corner of the economy, wresting control wherever possible from the clutches of the 1%.


Obviously, these steps would be met with resistance from the 1% and their governments. But that’s why we call it a “struggle” for democracy. They are not going to give it to us. We have to demand it, and take it when they refuse.


The Occupy movement is, of course, something very new, in many ways. But it is also a continuation of a longstanding human aspiration, centuries old: the aspiration to take democratic control, collectively and cooperatively, in a spirit of solidarity, mutual aid and mutual respect, of our own lives, communities and workplaces. The 1% are destroying ecosystems, impoverishing millions, throwing millions more into unemployment, even throwing them unceremoniously out of their own homes, ruthlessly exploiting resources stolen from Indigenous peoples, spreading war and misery everywhere – and all for the sake of their own private gain. Their chief enablers are the politicians of our official parliaments and legislatures. Can we replace these bankrupt institutions with what the Spanish Indignants call “real democracy now”? I believe that we can. At the very least, we have to try. Because that is what we built this movement to do.


Steve D’Arcy is a democratic theorist and an economic democracy/environmental justice activist. He can be reached at steve.darcy@gmail.com. 

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