Are protest networks democratic?

Whitehall, London students protest against fee...
Image by chrisjohnbeckett via Flickr

Quick post – longer one disappeared into the ether – about protest networks. On Left Foot Forward, Aaron Peters is broadly sympathetic to the claims of UKUncut and other similar “open-source” protest movements, that they have come up with a new organisational model which works better for mass involvement than traditional structure.

Near the end of the piece, he hints at the issue I have with that argument:

The lesson from the whole event is this – networks can be more powerful than organisations in fostering dissent and for that to be the case individuals and groups must be innovative in ideas and actions. That is why this model has proved successful so far. However, these same individuals and groups must be reminded that where there is not a broad consensus behind a particular action this model fails.

I think what Peters is saying here is that individual actions (going after Burger King rather than Top Shop, for instance) won’t wash with consensus-driven groups if there isn’t a consensus behind them.

That’s certainly true, but I’d go further and say that the “open source dissent” model can only work where groups are made up of broadly similar people with a rough agreement on their common purpose, and the means of getting there.

Unstructured decisions are not difficult in a large group where there is high trust and a sense of being an in-group. Revolutionaries and protest leaders from across the centuries can tell you then. What is difficult is maintaining that culture when the people involved represent the full range of views from right to left.

To be fair to UKUncut, that’s not something they claim to do. They want to convince people of their cause, ideally they want people to join them in their protests, but they have never as far as I know made a claim that they include the full spectrum of opinion.

That’s fine for UKUncut, but there has to be a generally inclusive space for decision and discussion somewhere, or else how can we make the tradeoffs between equally worthy causes transparently and with democratic legitimacy? Such spaces can’t operate on high-trust structureless models, because the people in them have strongly different views, so structureless models are liable to gaming and takeover. That’s where a light structure for decision-making with guarantees of fairness and, yes, perhaps even a bit of hierarchy is needed and always will be.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.