The Participation Paradigm (pt. 1): Decision-Making Processes in the New Social Economy

The converging social, economic, and ecological crises of the 21st century demand a radically new approach to understanding and relating to the world. Given the complexity of these crises, old hierarchical structures of organization and thinking are inadequately situated to respond to the dynamic uncertainties of this world in transition. Yet, along the margins of the old paradigm we are now witnessing the flowering of more fluid expressions of living and relating, better able to respond to and anticipate shocks to the interconnected ecological-economic system.

Consensus decision-making at Occupy LSX

Emerging forms of distributed and participatory decision-making are evolving alongside more inclusive and collaborative group facilitation processes to create a self-organizing, interconnected, non-hierarchical body of practice coherent with our converging 21st century crises. This represents a movement from the old linear model of control to a new paradigm of participation, with the network as the central organizing principle.  Nowhere has the emergence of the participation paradigm been as visibly embodied as in the unfolding “movement without a name”: in the squares of North Africa, in the global networks of online activists, in the tent cities of the Occupy movement and the Spanish Indignados.

In the shadows of the traditional neoclassical mechanisms of the market and the state, a robust social economy is also emerging, comprised of networks of social campaigners, non-profit organizations, cooperatives, and community groups. Connected through a parallel economy of ethics and reciprocity, the social economy represents both a critique of and alternative to neoclassical economics and hierarchical political systems. It is the unfolding of a new cultural narrative based on cooperation and mutual aid, distributed systems and collective intelligence, manifesting in self-organizing patterns and the flow of network relationships.

The Occupy Movement and Innovative Decision-Making Processes

This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!
– Occupy London General Assembly

The global Occupy movement represents a particularly unique expression of the new participation paradigm. Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as similar expressions of protest across Spain and Greece, Occupation sites have sprung up in nearly 1000 cities across the globe since September 2011. Perhaps the defining feature of this diverse movement is that it can no longer be narrowly defined as a protest at all. Many of the Occupy sites have evolved into fully functioning tent cities, complete with a decentralized system of governance, waste management services, teaching and learning programs, health and safety provisions, media teams, kitchens, and a thriving gift economy of goods and services. In these communities, people are connected not through obligation and coercion, but through participation and caring. From this perspective, Occupiers are forging an alternative model of living and relating to one another, not simply reacting to perceived injustices. And all this provocatively situated in the very shadow of the old paradigm: banks, financial institutions, and city halls.

The most notable innovation of the Occupy movement thus far has been the widespread implementation of participatory, consensus-based decision-making. Influenced by the research of anarchist, activist, and professor David Graeber, consensus decision-making is a decentralized, non-hierarchical, and completely participatory process. Unlike majority-based voting or consent systems, consensus depends on the agreement and compromise of all present participants. Decisions are only made once all objections have been addressed, and consensus is achieved through a creative process of synthesis where all voices are given equal weight. While this can result in a lengthy and sometimes messy affair, decision-making becomes a unifying process, not a polarizing one.

The decentralized nature of the decision-making process, as well as the interconnected network structure of working groups that feed information into this process, have the potential to make Occupy communities both extremely resilient as a whole and radically empowering for individual participants. As an essentially leaderless movement, the non-hierarchical structure confounds traditional methods of marginalizing opposition movements by delegitimizing or attacking the leadership. Giles Fraser, the St Pauls canon who resigned in protest of the church’s response to the Occupy London camp, compares the movement to a starfish, saying “it is precisely because Occupy is self-consciously leaderless and maddeningly amorphous that it has so much potential to regenerate the public conversation.”

One analysis of the non-hierarchical structure of the movement is that it is leader-less, but one could just as easily say that it is leader-full. The radically inclusive nature of the working groups and decision-making processes give everyone the opportunity to contribute in whatever way they are capable.  When functioning healthily, this results in a revolving door model of leadership where individuals step up for certain tasks but are continually replenished with new faces and thus new perspectives. In this way, the complexity of organizing such a diffuse and nebulous movement is distributed to the margins where the collective intelligence of the group is activated. Just as in ecosystems, diversity, cooperation and flexibility help create a resilient system better suited to the rapidly changing and uncertain environment which the camps find themselves both mirroring and responding to.

The Occupy ‘micro-societies’ also serve as training grounds and real-time laboratories for social innovation. The ability to continually experiment and respond to feedback is one of the essential qualities of a complex adaptive system, and thus Occupy communities are modeling how organizations and other complex adaptive social systems can more effectively respond to crisis. At the personal level, individuals empowered by inclusive and participatory decision-making processes will take new skills and ways of organizing out into the emerging social economy, of which many of them are already a part.

In demanding “real democracy” – a more direct and participatory form of democratic decision-making – the Occupy movement has aimed to embody what it seeks. In so doing, it has significantly contributed to a profound paradigmatic shift from control to participation, from linear hierarchical institutions to self-organizing horizontal networks. As these networks merge and flow outward, they weave an alternative cultural narrative around participation and the power of collective intelligence to respond more resiliently where hierarchical institutions and market forces have failed.

Pt. 2 will explore the social economy and collaborative group facilitation processes in the transition to the participation paradigm.


One thought on “The Participation Paradigm (pt. 1): Decision-Making Processes in the New Social Economy

  1. Pingback: Cultivating a polyculture of exchange | an oak tree in the garden

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