How General Assemblies in the Occupy Movement use Representative Democracy

As the Occupy Movement is re-examining the role of the General Assembly it is important to ask what kind of democracy do we want in our movements?

Up until now the Occupy Movement has used General Assemblies as a primary method for making main decisions. While General Assemblies can make movements more democratic it is a misconception that they are examples of participatory democracy. In fact they largely follow the representative democracy model (and representative and participatory democracy aren't always as far away from each other as people think).

When a General Assembly has a lot of people, especially if there are more than a hundred, but even if there are more than twenty, then most people won't get on the speaking list for issues that they want to discuss. As the General Assembly grows over a hundred people, you have people like me who NEVER got on the speaker's list. The only way I got to speak at a GA was by speaking on behalf of a working group. And by NEVER, I mean not a single time did I get on the list. This was worse in that I only tried when I had very important contributions to make, and my contributions tend to be two times shorter than the median (eg. I never speak more than two minutes and prepare my brief points in advance.)

The most participatory part of the General Assembly was when you would turn to your neighbor (or several neighbors) and have a small group discussion. Then your views would be passed on by a small group Representative to the larger assembly.

So at the General Assembly you are hearing a Representation of the views on an issue. A ton of people are being denied the opportunity to speak. Sure we can vote, but voting without speaking is not participatory democracy. Part of the reason that people were constantly disrupting GAs is because it is hard to get on stack, and hard to feel like the group is paying you any attention when there are 50 or 100+ other people. This also explains why some people stopped going to GAs.

Very early on I wanted to schedule my working group meeting (Training and Education) at the same time as the General Assembly because I saw our working group as more empowering than the General Assembly. I thought we could get real stuff done and have discussions with 8-15 people that wouldn't be possible at the GA. The GA was also taking up most of the evening, EVERY evening, (7pm-9pm or sometimes as late as 10pm), not leaving much time for working groups to meet. My idea was shot down, but to this day I'd argue that I was right.

The value of the working groups is that you can have more of a participatory democracy because there are fewer people. I'm not sure where the cutoff is, but somewhere around having ten people in a group is a good balance between everyone being able to participate and having enough people to do a project.

As the GA grows smaller, it becomes both more participatory (for the people who attend), however it also becomes more of a representation of the movement as most of the movement is NOT attending. This is a paradox.

I think it is possible to find alternative decision-making methods to the GA that are more democratic.

1. All Power to the Working Groups
Very early on in the Occupy Philly movement people started getting the idea that the power had to be held somewhere. So to create a vertical structure that made sense to them they gave this power to the GA. Thus if you wanted anything big to get done you had to write a proposal, get it to CoCo (a group that set the agenda for the GA), and then discussed and passed by the GA.

This was a load of nonsense. The most important initiatives (other than the original occupation, and perhaps the decision to not leave the plaza without protesting) were done by individuals on their own or as part of a working group.

You don't need the GA's permission to organize a protest, a program, an event, a campaign, or a working group. And you still don't.

Fortunately I think most people realized this and to this day most of the power is in the working groups. I'd just like to make it more explicit. I think almost all the power could be in the working groups, except for Very Big Decisions.

2. Coordinating Committee
Since the GA is already a representation of the local occupy movement, why not make it more explicit? Why not recognize this fact and elect a democratic coordinating committee? The advantages include being able to hold people accountable (holding leaders who don't call themselves leaders accountable is hard because they can claim to be only acting on their own behalf when in fact their decisions affect the group and how others see the group), being able to rotate leadership (or not if you don't want to), and it frees up people's time to engage in working groups. Many people will feel more empowered in the long run by a successful movement than one which has extremely long (and in some ways more democratic or horizontal) meetings.

By "Coordinating Committee", I mean a body with elected leadership that has more power than the Occupy Philly Coordinating Committee (aka CoCo) whose main power was limited to setting the agenda for the General Assembly.

A ton of movements use coordinating committees and it is something the Occupy Movement should consider.

3. Spokes Council (or Affinity Group model) with Many Layers
There is a decision making model that starts off with affinity groups of around 10 people. You can have discussions with these ten people and then have a person represent your ideas to meeting of affinity group reps. If you have a large movement you might want a second, third or even forth round of affinity group rep meetings. Each time you can increase the number of people who are participating in the process by a factor of ten, while never having more than ten people at a meeting.

I think this model was used by the Clamshell Alliance in their nonviolent occupation of the Seabrook New Hampshire nuclear power construction site.

The downside is that it may take a lot of meetings for ideas to percolate up.

I think it might make sense to have a focus on empowering working groups to do what they want, having the occasional GA make very big decisions, and possibly having an elected coordinating committee to help facilitate everyone's work.