Academic journal article Capital & Class

Occupy Representation and Democratise Prefiguration: Speaking for Others in Global Justice Movements

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Occupy Representation and Democratise Prefiguration: Speaking for Others in Global Justice Movements

Article excerpt

Introduction

At a meeting of the International Council of the World Social Forum in Italy in 2004, a South African trade unionist got into a debate with a couple of other participants. As in many activist spaces, decision making in the council was supposed to be based on the principle of consensus. As no consensus seemed to emerge, the trade unionist finally expressed his frustration: 'I am here representing millions of African workers, who the fuck are you?' After a moment of vexed silence, the situation calmed down and the meeting went on in a friendly manner. (1) It was an example of the silence with which representational claims to speak for others often meet, in contexts assumedly based on the absence of representational politics.

The International Council of the World Social Forum was founded in 2001 as an organisational hybrid, in which contending attitudes toward representation sometimes clash and lead to frustrations. Its individual participants are representatives of member organisations that range from trade unions to activist networks. As a whole, however, it avoids claiming to represent anything, and its working principles are influenced by 'nonrepresentational' activism (see e.g. Caruso 2013; Teivainen 2012). Ten years later, in 2011, Occupy Wall Street constituted general assemblies as a decision-making procedure within the occupied city squares. In many characterisations, their individual participants were not supposed to be representatives of anything but themselves. The Occupy activists have thus often been considered enthusiastic participants in what Simon Tormey (2012: 136) calls the 'generalised revolt against representation'.

The rejection of representation has been more explicit in the Occupy movements than in the Social Forums. Both, however, offer various examples of representational practices. This becomes evident if we distinguish the overall ideological orientation of the activist spaces (such as the World Social Forum or Occupy Wall Street) from the workings of their decision-making bodies (such as the International Council or General Assembly). Decades ago, Jo Freeman (1972-73) famously analysed the 'tyranny of structurelessness' within feminist groups that wanted to avoid traditional organisational hierarchies. More recently, a participant in the International Council of the World Social Forum commented that despite the pretensions of participatory democracy, it was like being in a central committee meeting without knowing who was Stalin. (2) On Occupy Wall Street, David Graeber (2013: 136-137) has drawn attention to the dilemmas of organising through 'spokescouncils' that were often seen as top-down and divisive. Similar concerns can be found in Hannah Chadeyane Appel's (2012: 112-116) description of the 'bureaucracies of anarchy' in the Occupy assemblies. An Occupy Wall Street activist interviewed by Micha Fiedlschuster (2013) highlighted the difficulties of following the anti-representationalist doctrines by stating, 'in a movement you are in a position where you need to negotiate on behalf of other [sic] or the group'. (3)

Among the many sources of inspiration for the Occupy movements were the assemblies that emerged in neighborhoods and occupied factories in Argentina during the politically chaotic first years of the millennium (e.g. Sitrin & Azzellini 2014). With a strong emphasis on direct participation, the assemblies expressed a rejection of existing forms of political representation, encapsulated by the slogan Que se vayan todos ('Out with them all'). The slogan's main target was the country's political elite, but it also implied a desire to move beyond the existing system of political representation. Countless other activist spaces and organisations in different parts of the world, and many of their researchers, have been repeating or making their own versions of the dichotomy between (good) participatory or direct democracy and (bad) representative democracy. …

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