How does horizontalism or non-hierarchical organizing work, and what have we learned from attempts at it?

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The following responds to a question received during the learning circle held on how to occupy spaces to advance your cause. The contents of this page include insight from academic analyses of the use of horizontality in social movements and movement organizers. 

What is horizontality?

"Horizontality refers to the active creation of nonhierarchical relations through decision-making processes. Rather than assuming that equality can be declared or created through a centralized authority that is legitimated to rule by 'the people', movement practices of horizontality rest on the assumption that inequality will always permeate every social interaction. This shift in assumptions results in an acknowledgement that these inequalities always exist and that each person is responsible for continuously challenging these inequalities at every step of a decision-making process." -Marianne Maeckelbergh [1]

As Marianne Maeckelbergh explains [2] horizontal decision-making can be described as an alternative form of global network-based democracy. Its main arguments are: 

1) Equality must be continuously created and worked on. Equality cannot occur naturally, based on existing hierarchies in our society for gender, sex, rase, class, education, skill interpersonal power dynamics, etc.

2) Diversity is the goal of decision making, rather than unity. Diversity support the creation of the best solution that is enforced on everyone.

Differences are used to form solutions as part of the decision-making process. People also have the option to act autonomously. This means that if they don’t agree with a decision taken, they don’t have to join the group as part of it and they can do something else.

History of horizontalism [3] [4]

The form that horizontal decision-making is taking today (i.e. by the Occupy movement) has a history that can be traced back at least into the 1960s.

  • People making decisions together without any structured hierarchy have always existed.
  • During the 1960s, the Left broke from political party structures and moved towards participatory democratic approaches to social change.
  • Participatory democracy started to merge with practices of consensus during the women’s/feminist movements, anti-nuclear and peace movements of the 1970s. Through the 1980s and 1990s, environmental movements kept these decision-making practices present.

The term “horizontalism,” from the Spanish horizontalidad, was first used in Argentina after the 2001 popular rebellion.

  • Argentines, during an economic crisis, went out into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. People banged on pots and pans, and sung to officials with “Que se vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo” (“They all must go, not even one should remain”).
  • Protestors forced out five consecutive governments and formed the first neighborhood assemblies grounded in horizontalidad.
  • Horizontalidad has since been used throughout the world to describe movements seeking self-management, autonomy and direct democracy.

Occupy sprung up in response to a lack of democracy, and not feeling represented by governments 

  • The Occupy movements lead to thousands of assemblies around the United States, Greece and Spain. The goal was to create space for conversations where all can participate and determine together what the future should look like.
  • Actions included the occupation of homes in the United States to prevent evictions and of cash offices in hospitals in Greece so people do not have to pay the cost of health care. Towns and cities across the United States created barter networks and instituted free childcare. The self-organized, autonomous nature of these initiatives demonstrated an attempt at achieving decentralization, a key element of horizontalism.


Lessons on Implementing Horizontality [5]

Using decentralized networks and general assemblies [6] [7]

Decentralized network coalitions

  • Allow for multiple, separate groups of people to coordinate with only limited unity of purpose. People align themselves based on different interests or activities. They may also gather for moments of convergence such as festivals, strikes or week of actions.
  • When necessary, they can bring people together to make decisions that will affect everyone involved. However, some coalitions chose to have a trustworthy directing group to ease decision-making processes. Such decentralized network coalitions could still have general assemblies to make their most important decisions.

General assemblies

  • Create dynamic proposals. General assemblies are best used in a decentralized way, whereby those involved do not need to approve actions. Instead, there are multiple decision-making bodies.
  • Meeting structure includes: preparing the proposal before the meeting, presenting the proposal to the large meeting, and reworking the proposal in working group meetings and smaller 'parallel' meetings.
No consensus on the appropriate manner to organize collectively
  • Contextual factors will influence decisions on what decision making bodies to use, and how power differentials and vertical decision making will be dealt with as these inevitably arise.
  • Anarchist activists that participated in the 2011 occupation of Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona disagreed with the use of general assemblies, stating: "The central assembly functioned to suppress [creativity and initiative taking.] The central assembly did not give rise to one single initiative. What it did, rather, was to grant legitimacy to initiatives worked out in the commissions; but this process must not be portrayed in positive terms. This granting of legitimacy was in fact a robbing of the legitimacy of all the decisions made in the multiple spaces throughout the plaza not incorporated into an official commission" -Anonymous, 2012.

Challenges to horizontalism

Marianne Maeckelbergh suggests 3 main challenges arose from Occupy that caused tension, and steered groups away from horizontality:

1) Believing that resources are scarce

  • Focusing on financial resources and the chase of fame in the Occupy Wall Street movement caused problems. In the anti-summit mobilizations, money was treated as secondary—first the group decided what it wanted to achieve politically, and then the group could see how much money was needed and where it could come from.
  • The idea that you can only act when you have money, suggests money is where power comes from. Lacking financial resources has rarely impeded people from taking action historically. 
  • In Oakland, political discussions were separated from financial ones. First, a discussion on pros and cons would be had about whether to, and/or how to, take an action. Separate meetings were held to submit proposals to fund the chosen actions, without pro/con discussions.

2) Believing we need to compete to be heard or get what we want

  • Treating resources as scarce leads to competition. Diversity is central to the functioning of horizontality. If those participating in the horizontal process perceive their ability to get funds for their activities to be threatened by your request for funds, they will vote against it, rather than thinking about the value of an activity itself.
  • The aim of horizontal decision-making should be to look for ways to make all activities possible with or without funds so this attitude of competition doesn't arise.

3) Claiming domains of activity or knowledge as something someone is in privileged position to know or act upon, excluding others.

"A nation-state is a political structure based on the delineation of a geographical area within which everyone must share some aspects of national identity and within which everyone is subject to the same legal rights and responsibilities. This may seem inevitable within a polity, but within a network, there is no clear beginning or end and as a result also no clearly delineated group of people who are subject to the remit of decisions taken—even by the general assembly. Although this can seem ‘out-of-control’ sometimes, this is actually the strength of horizontal decision-making. Networks can multiply and split without creating divisions." -Marianne Maeckelbergh 

Critiques of Occupy movement's attempts at horizontality [8]

Participatory democratic processes may fail to provide an alternative to capitalism.

  • Most of those involved with Occupy described their experience using these decision-making methods as 'dysfunctional'.
  • "Participation can just as readily function as a vector for dominant ideologies as it can serve as a tool for liberation." -Not an Alternative

Mistakenly acted as if power and control come from centralized, closed authority only.

  • Argument that the general assemblies used in Occupy were ineffective, even when specific working groups were able to use consensus.
  • No rules for membership; there was no mechanism to hold people accountable. Someone who wanted to disrupt the meeting could do so.
  • Trying to achieve consensus with less involved members often resulted in inaction, or the adoption of the least controversial position.

Those who could not show up in person could not participate.

  • Working people were disadvantaged by the basic structure of the movement. Those who could not attend were not represented.
  • For those in attendance, the general assemblies did not facilitate brainstorming, the consideration of complex ideas, or the evaluation of action-proposals. Rather, the assemblies were more of a free for all, where participants could voice opinions but these would often get lost as no one was encouraged to speak to one another's points, summarize key thoughts etc.

The People's mic

  • Occupy Wall Street’s general assembly innovated 'the People’s Mic', involving the crowd repeating a speaker’s words so that people too far from the speaker could hear.
  • Invited privilege and censorship, as people close to the mic did not always repeat what was said. Moreover, the People’s Mic propped up people with a certain set of rhetorical skills, enabling them to emerge as unacknowledged leaders.

Some decisions don't need general assembly consensus

  • Had groups waited for the general assembly there would have been no Zuccotti encampment left to discuss when eviction was threatened. Organizers behind the scenes jumped into rapid action without wider network approval.
  • This should have been the emphasis of Occupy's general assemblies; to report to the distributed network and uplift, not approve, people's actions.

"The strength of Occupy comes from a political logic completely counter to the consensus process. Occupiers made the decision to take up the name “Occupy” not because they agreed with it, but because they knew “Occupy” represented something they believed in, something they had already seen at work. When people joined, they were joining not because of a process, but because of an idea. They were committing, in other words,'' not to talk to one another until they all agreed but to join a struggle together with others with whom they might not necessarily agree."''' - 'Not an Alternative [9]

Digging deeper: examining occupy Montreal [10]

People participated as individuals rather than members of organizations.

  • The occupation of Victoria Square, in the financial district of Montreal, took place from 15 October to 25 November 2011.
  • Occupy Montreal was not able to achieve a decentralized network, which would have entailed communication and coordination on the part of collectives that are already constituted (organizations, networks, and coalitions).
  • Individual involvement fostered a more inclusive dynamic than if people were brought from existing organizations (most were mobilized through social media). Where decentralized networks can be described as ‘networks of networks’, using social media to mobilize generates more ‘crowds of individuals.’ The challenge with not achieving a decentralized network was fragmentation and a lack of sustainability.

Members took it upon themselves to make a major decision for the entire mass.

"Members of the media committee of Occupy Montreal held a press conference and announced that they were leaving the camp. The statement had not been discussed at the GA (general assembly), but the media immediately announced the end of the occupation. This situation fostered even more tension and conflict in the GA. The media committee was asked to attend the GA the next day to explain its statement, and the GA decided to continue the occupation regardless of the media committee or pressure from public authorities. But on Friday 25 November at 8am, approximately 300 police carried out the eviction of the camp. A few hours later, there had been 14 arrests and the occupation was over." -Marcos Ancelovici [11]

A series of working committees organized around the general assembly

  • Working committees functioned like affinity groups who were accountable to the general assembly.
  • There were committees for facilitation, media, food, philosophy, security, alliances etc. Each committee was relatively autonomous, with information circulating between the assembly and committees.
  • Each committee was not necessarily aware of what other committees were doing, which means the general assembly centralized power and decisions to some extent.
Lessons on autonomous working groups

"Consensus process only works if it is combined with a principle of radical decentralization. […] It’s always better, if possible, to make decisions in smaller groups: working groups, affinity groups, collectives. […] One should not feel one needs authorization from anyone, even the General Assembly (which is everyone), unless it would be in some way harmful to proceed without. […]" - Graeber, 2013 [12]

  • As a general rule of thumb: decisions should be made on the smallest scale, the lowest level, possible. Do not ask for higher approval unless there’s a pressing need to.
Horizontalism is an ongoing process of trial and error. 
  • Balancing inclusion and encouraging autonomous action, building trust, identifying power and how to share it, and overall avoiding replicating the vertical structures of decision making we're socialized into is no easy task!
  • Any attempt to build non-hierarcheal, inclusive structures that meet one another's needs outside of the state is a welcomed opportunity for learning.

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