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Reinventing democracy

Marianne Maeckelbergh argues that one of the global justice movement's key innovations has been its approach to democratic decision-making

December 21, 2009
12 min read

It was getting late on day two of seemingly hopeless meetings. The assembly hall was full, but the energy with which the discussion began was waning fast. People had travelled to Paris from across Europe for this European Social Forum (ESF) planning meeting, but the pressure of the task at hand was starting to weigh heavily. There was only a month to go before the ESF and much more than a month’s worth of decisions left to be made.

Hundreds of people were debating whether a commercial cinema should be used as a meeting space during the social forum. An activist theatre group was arguing passionately against it: ‘If you [the assembly] decide to host cultural events in a capitalist cinema, it will be an insult to us and the struggle we have been waging against them for the past five years … We will be forced to withdraw from the European preparatory process.’

The person sat next to me rolls her eyes and leans over: ‘Leave it to the radical theatre group to get over-dramatic about every little thing. We have a hundred important items on the agenda and we have spent over an hour debating this one issue already.’ With a conflict raging in the large assembly hall and several conflicts emerging in the small meeting rooms next door, it occurred to me that the interesting question to ask about the alterglobalisation movement might not be ‘what unites?’ but ‘what creates conflict?’

Practising democracy

The alterglobalisation movement made its name and its fame with the series of large-scale protests against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999. In the ten years since, it has been a thorn in the side of powerful multilateral institutions everywhere they go and every time they try to meet. The media initially credited this movement with reopening the ‘future of history’ after Francis Fukuyama had famously declared that ‘the end of history’ had arrived in the form of capitalist democracy and the end of Soviet communism.

The Seattle protests captured media attention because they were unexpected, they were large, and they involved a certain element of rioting. The police also helped by offering the media an image of a war zone, bringing in tanks, the military, tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and concussion grenades that sounded across downtown Seattle and worldwide across TV screens. Pictures of police attacking protesters interrupted scheduled programming in the US, and when the WTO had to cancel the first day of meetings because protesters had successfully blockaded the roads, history was temporarily made.

Unfortunately, the nature of glory is perhaps that it dies almost as quickly as it rises. Since 1999, the alterglobalisation movement has been organising massive protests and gatherings on every continent, many of which are attended by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, but the media has lost interest. The movement continues, but the world remains largely ignorant of its existence. Even those who know of its existence know little of its significance.

This fact, combined with the access I’ve had to this movement as an activist involved in it since those first days on the streets of Seattle, led me to write about what I consider to be a groundbreaking creation of the movement – the development of inclusive democratic structures for global decision-making.

Far beyond the glamour of large-scale street protests, deeper than a critique of global capitalism or neoliberal economics, lies a practice of decision-making that, when explored and analysed, turns out to hold crucial insights not just for social movements, but for the future of global democracy. Focusing on decision-making within the global networks of the alterglobalisation movement led me to develop two lines of argument. The first is that social movement actors are practising a form of politics rooted in anarchist praxis and central to 1960s movements known as ‘prefigurative politics’. Prefiguration is a strategy for social change that differs from ideologies of revolution that allocate change to a moment in the future. Prefiguration focuses instead on everyday practices and processes of revolutionary change through doing in the present. Movement actors try to change the world by putting their ideals into practice in the here-and-now, by insisting that they make decisions democratically as a way to develop viable structures for a more democratic world.

While the first argument focuses on prefiguration as a strategy, and consequently on the way the movement tries to bring about social change, the second argument explores the type of social change that movement actors desire – the movement’s democratic structures. As is often the case, the research raised more questions than it answered, but the questions it raised were interesting in their own right.

What happens when democracy is practised through a network structure instead of the nation state? What happens to ‘the people’ when the constituency is a network and not a clearly delineated geographical space? Or, in other words, can we have democracy without universal suffrage? What happens when democracy is practised without the assumption of ‘free and equal’ individuals? What happens when the goal of democracy is no longer agreement? How can we understand the relationship between individual and collective interests in a world of diverse and complex individuals and groups? These questions led me to examine the way movement actors interpreted several basic democratic values, starting with liberty, equality, representation and participation.


The alterglobalisation movement, and many of the movements it grew out of, make decisions by consensus. If even one person in the group disagrees, they keep talking and thinking until they come up with something that everyone can live with. Over the past 40 years, they have developed rather complicated structures that make it possible to do this even when thousands of people all across the world have to be included in the decision. This means that ‘participation’ within their democratic practice takes on a very different meaning than it does within contemporary representative democracy.

In representative democracy the term participation usually refers to the right to vote in an election. Alterglobalisation movement actors are not referring to voting when they talk about the need for more participation. In fact, most of them reject voting as a democratic system altogether because when there is a vote, the majority always wins, and so voting as a system always privileges the majority and excludes minorities.

This implicit acceptance of Alex de Tocqueville’s classic critique of democracy, which he refers to as the ‘tyranny of the majority’, is partly the result of having learned from experience what David Graeber (2008) argues is symptomatic of democracy: that in a system of majority rule you always need a mechanism of violence to ensure that the out-voted minorities fall in line.

The movement links this critique of participation and majority rule to a critique of representation. The crisis of scale that the revolutionaries of the French revolution faced – how to create democracy at the nation-state level – is being revisited on the alterglobalisation movement with the rise of global governance structures such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO and G8.

The power of the nation state is shifting; power is no longer enacted by the state through the nation state but through global governance structures. This, together with other factors, leads to a crisis of representation in which representatives at the level of the nation state cease to be sufficient to ensure democratic accountability. These structures of global governance have been a central target of the alterglobalisation movement since it first emerged, but the goal of the movement has not been to merely eliminate or reform these institutions.

Rather, these institutions have been used by movement actors to highlight the problems of centralised power inherent in representative democracy. The alterglobalisation movement turns the democratic relationship between scale and representation on its head, showing that it is exactly due to scale that representation is not only impossible, but also unnecessary.

Not more but different

The solution being proposed (implicitly through their practice) to the problem of scale and the crisis of representation facing nation states in the globalised world today is not more democracy but different democracy. Rather than having more representatives or improving representation, rather even than having a form of direct democracy where ‘the people’ get to vote for many more purposes than merely electing leaders, the alterglobalisation movement suggests a form of democracy that rejects all formal and fixed representation. This rejection of representation, however, does not lead movement actors to the unrealistic conclusion that everyone must be involved in all decisions. Instead, the movement is in the process of creating a democratic system that would potentially allow for people to be as involved as they desire at all levels of decision-making, including the global, by getting involved in decision-making at the local level. Through a decentralised network structure, decisions that affect an entire network of people can, in principle, be discussed at every node of that network and then decided through communication between nodes.

As I tried to unravel the assumptions underlying the decision-making practices the movement actors were developing, I realised that they were making a profound political statement about democracy that challenged a central tenet of political philosophy. Implicit in consensus decision-making is the assumption that if there is a clear and highly structured procedure in place for how to decide then there need not be an agreement on who decides.

Movement actors were therefore displacing one of the central questions of democratic theory, the classic question of ‘who rules?’ Instead, they were developing a set of principles for how to rule that challenge both the individualism and homogeneity of liberal representative democracy. In so doing, movement actors open up the possibility for a much more diverse democracy in which conflicting identities and opinions flourish. And, they are doing so on a global scale.

Creating conflictive spaces

I realised quickly that this democratic process rested on something movement actors call ‘process’. Process was a term that arose in nearly every context I came across. Friendships were won and lost and age-old rivalries were buried and forgotten, all because of process. Those who adhered to the same idea of what the ‘right’ process was would build political alliances, and those who disagreed would come into strong conflict.

At the beginning of an organising process for a social forum or an anti-G8 mobilisation, movement actors set up a series of practical working groups to take care of tasks such as budget, programme, interpretation, registration, outreach and so on. They also set up a working group whose sole task is to take care of the process. This demonstrates the central importance of process, but also points to the fact that it was contested.

A process working group is necessary because not everyone involved adheres to the same process. Even when everyone is speaking of an ‘open process’, this can mean very different things in practice. Process working groups were essential for dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arose out of these different meanings.

This brings us back to the centrality of conflict. How does the alterglobalisation movement create a global structure for democracy that allows for diversity? They do so by embracing conflict. They actively create what some actors call ‘conflictive spaces’. For most movement actors conflict is not something to be avoided, but something to be desired for its constructive potential. Many movement actors believe that conflict is necessary if diversity is to be possible, but to avoid the problems associated with conflict, conflict has to be transformed from adversarial to constructive.

This transformation is a continuous process, reinforced by practices of ‘horizontality’. Horizontality refers to a decentralised and non-hierarchical form of power, and to the creation of new types of power that allow people to ‘take control’ not of others, but collectively of themselves. Horizontality requires that there be many loci of power and is linked to a desire for more diversity and a rejection of discourses of unity.

Although diversity almost always leads to conflict, adversarial conflict is not caused by this flow of diversity. Adversarial conflict arises when these flows are blocked. Movement actors, therefore, approach conflict as something that can be productive if it is given space for expression. This is in deliberate contrast to the most common ways of dealing with internal diversity and conflict in contemporary nation state-based representative democracies – which are usually forced homogenisation and isolation through the construction of walls and gated communities, and the active policing of internal and external boundaries.

As it turned out, although the two research questions I started with seemed to be polar opposites of each other – ‘what unites?’ and ‘what creates conflict?’ – the answer was the same. Movement actors are united through a conflict about the process of decision-making. These conflicts improve the capacity of the democratic structures they create to incorporate diversity. In this way they ensure that the political systems they are slowly developing will foster structures of power in which diversity can be expressed and hierarchy limited.

These structures are imperfect, and still require a great deal of work to be feasible as a form of global democracy, but most alterglobalisation movement actors do not seem to be deterred by this challenge. They are confident that they can transform the ‘possibility’ they have created into a reality and they remain realistic about how long it might take. As one activist put it, ‘We are just at the beginning, but we are beginning.’

n Marianne Maeckelbergh is the author of The Will of the Many: how the alterglobalisation movement is changing the face of democracy, published by Pluto Press. Exclusive offer for Red Pepper readers. Get The Will of the Many for only £15 including UK P&P (RRP £17.99). Call 020 8348 2724 or email

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