Over the past decade, millions of people have come together during powerful and dramatic social movement moments, in the occupations in Zuccotti Park, Gezi Park, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma Square and thousands of other plazas around the world. Rather than appealing for concessions from those in power, participants in these movements rejected the “leaders” who have brought on a continuous stream of economic crisis, poverty, war, and racial violence to instead imagine — and try to create — a radical democracy where everyone is able to directly participate in creating our collective future.
This experimentation with direct democracy is not new in social movement organizing. For generations, powerful and dynamic social movement organizations have adopted directly democratic and horizontal models of organizing. Religious anti-war organizers, key organizations in the Black freedom struggle, the student movement of the 1960’s, the anti-nuclear movement and the global justice movement all employed models of horizontal consensus decision making that were remarkably consistent with the methods of direct democracy that have appeared in the occupations of the past decade.
Direct democracy and horizontal organizing were not just common characteristics of each of these mobilizations and movements; they were vital conditions that facilitated solidarity among participants allowing these movements to take root and grow. Reflecting on the earlier social movements, Francesca Polletta observed that “when people feel ownership of decisions…their sense of solidarity and commitment is heightened…People are less likely to participate if they are ambivalent about or opposed to the group’s decisions or if they suspect that others may not be fully committed to what is supposed to be a group decision.”
Polletta further noted that this process of decision making qualitatively changes the way that social movement participants engage with each other, observing, “the deliberative aspect of participatory democratic decision making can build solidarity by pressing participants to recognize the legitimacy of other peoples’ reasoning. The process of decision making makes for a great acceptance of the differences that coexist with shared purposes.”
While each of these movements and moments has offered us a glimpse into what our world might look like if people were able to take control of their own futures, directly democratic organizations and movements have not yet attained the scale or influence needed to transform the current social, political or order. Instead, each of these projects eventually receded, with participants migrating into more distributed projects like neighborhood assemblies, cooperatives, issue campaigns, or turning their attention to their families or paid employment.
The ebbs and flows of social movements are not necessarily indicative of the failure of any of these particular movements, nor do they mean that directly democratic organizing does not have the potential to dramatically and permanently transform society. But we also cannot deny that we are still a long way from organizing a sustainable democratic revolution.
The most significant barrier to building powerful directly democratic social movements is not that democracy is a cumbersome or inefficient way to organize movements or society, it is that our current experience with representative liberal democracy is so far from actual democracy most of us have trouble imagining what real democracy could look or feel like, let alone how to navigate the structures, institutions and norms of a directly democratic social and economic order.
Indeed, the current system of liberal or representative democracy has little in common with notions of a truly democratic order. Reflecting on the limited scope of liberal democracy, Sitrin & Azzellini write, “in liberal democracy, ‘the economic,’ ‘the political,’ and ‘the social’ are all constructed as three separate spheres. The economic and social spheres are excluded from democracy.” And even within the limited political sphere, people who are afforded the opportunity to vote have only the opportunity to choose representatives who may or may not even do what they told voters they would do.
Real democracy, on the other hand, is much harder. Where citizens can participate in representative democracy by showing up in a voting booth every other year, direct democracy requires everyone to take responsibility for their own community and their own future. Rather than just pulling a lever, direct democracy requires participants to engage in deliberative dialogue, solve problems, compromise, and follow through with their commitments. And even within explicitly democratic structures participants still need to vigilantly watch out for the emergence of informal hierarchies and the replications of the systems of oppression that exist within our societies.
The practice of direct democracy, particularly within small to medium sized social movement organization is one that has been passed from movement to movement through years, with veterans of earlier social movements passing on models and new activists fitting the old models to their unique experiences. Practicing real democracy necessarily transforms participants’ relationships with each other. Donatella della Porta observed that, “free spaces (horizontal and participatory) offer a school of citizenship, socializing in those competencies and values that are essential to support effective participation.”
While this process of learning democracy can be liberating and healthy, it is not always easy or smooth. Horizontal movements all over the globe have struggled with similar problems: wildly long meetings running late into the night leaving to decision by fatigue, tyranny of the eccentric, and deliberately toxic group processes derailing decision-making processes. In many cases, participants have been able to develop practices to navigate these challenges, more effectively facilitating discussion, modifying decision making processes, and implementing practices to ensure that voices all voices are heard.
By now, millions of people have made it through the ‘schools of citizenship’ of the plaza occupations of the past decade. The democratic practices that those students of the plazas learned have filtered through neighborhood assemblies, housing cooperatives, and political organizations. But this model of single-location, medium-scale, temporary democracy is only one step in imagining total direct democracy on a global level.
Sitrin and Azzellini note that, “the starting point for participation and democracy is rooted in the local.” But eventually we will need to move beyond the starting point. Our movements have a number of models for coordinating direct democracy across different geographies including spokes councils, federation models and other types of council democracy. Participants in Spain’s M15 movement have had some success dispersing their assemblies and returning to their neighborhoods. But practicing this layered and democracy is qualitatively different from the face-to-face democracy of the plaza occupations in many meaningful ways and participating in directly democratic organizing with people we cannot see and often have never met will be a new and challenging learning experience.
While the plaza occupations and other major democratic projects of the past decade have often prefigured many aspects of alternative societies the, vast majority of the democratic processes that took place in those spaces was restricted to the political sphere. Camp kitchens offered food and commissaries distributed camping equipment and other materials, but the few dealt with particularly high stakes deliberations about the allocation of scarce resources. In many political spaces, participants have formed teams or committees to mediate conflicts and facilitate processes of restorative justice, but these experiences appear to have been relatively limited and navigating conflict and difference in a democratic society continues to be a major challenge for many social movements. Looking forward our movements will need to develop skills and experience in facilitating economic and social democracy.
Participating in direct democracy in collectives and assemblies has required that, at least temporarily, we unlearn the logic and organization of liberal representative democracy and allow ourselves to imagine a new type of freedom. Our movements learned, adopted and developed new practices to facilitate participatory process and as we experimented and explored new ways of organizing ourselves. Learning the democratic practices that are now common in social movements was an iterative process as different movements learned from the previous movements, navigated old contractions and adapted practices that addressed the needs and aspirations of our projects and our movements.
If our social movements are going to practice liberatory democracy at larger scales and in the economic and social spheres of our lives we will need to learn, adopt and develop new practices and tools to navigate the unique challenges that these scales and spheres introduce. This will require an iterative process of learning from previous social movements, navigating old contradictions and adapting practices that meet the needs and aspirations of our current movements. But as we experiment with these new models and challenges we will be aided by our experiments and experiences in more limited forms of democratic organizing.
 Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
 Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini, They Can’t Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy From Greece To Occupy, 1 edition (London ; Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014).
 Donatella della Porta, Can Democracy Be Saved?: Participation, Deliberation and Social Movements, 1 edition (Cambridge: Polity, 2013).
 Sitrin and Azzellini.
 Sitrin and Azzellini.