Global Policy Forum

Is Structurelessness Democratic?


Two Normative Frameworks for Debates at the World Social Forum

By Tuomas Ylä-Anttila

Network Institute for Global Democratization
November 2005

In his recent lecture on November 15th at the University of Helsinki, Dr. Teivo Teivainen, of NIGD, made a point about power relations within the World Social Forum. Teivainen remarked that power relations can never be completely erased from processes of human interaction. What is more, claiming that such a state would have been achieved, can actually lead to the cementation of the existing power relations. If we refuse to speak of power relations, we can never question them. Teivainen reminded that the problem is familiar, for example, from the feminist movements of the 1960's and 70's, where it became known as the "tyranny of structurelessness" (Jo Freeman). In the context of the WSF, the problem is shown, in particular, in the functioning of the Forum's decision-making body, the International Council. As there is not much in terms of formal structures and rules for decision-making, some decisions, including those regarding making the council itself more open to new actors, have proven to be difficult to make.

In what follows, I would like to further elaborate on the power relations within the WSF. My argument is that recognizing the existence of power relations and the need to come up with decisions, implies that the WSF needs two different normative frameworks for its debates: one for the Forum itself, and another one for the International Council.

The methodology of the WSF has been characterized as an open space; according to its Charter of Principles, the Forum is to be an inclusive, non-hierarchical space of open-ended discussions, that do not aim at joint statements arrived at by neither the consensus of all participants, nor voting procedures. It has to be noted, however, that even in their plurality, the views expressed at the WSF cannot be said to represent something like The Global Civil Society as a whole. From the beginning, the WSF has defined itself through what it is opposed to: "The WSF is an open meeting place for…groups and movements that are opposed to neoliberalism and to the domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism" (Charter of Principles). Needless to say, not all organizations which could be counted in the category of global civil society would sign this charter. The WSF does not only oppose neoliberalism, it aims at creating alternatives to it. Nevertheless, it is not the forum of global civil society – it might be the most important one to date, but not the only one.

But the WSF has managed to gather an extremely numerous and diverse set of actors, cross-fertilize many important debates on globalization and create networks for action outside the forum itself. This success has been by and large due to the invigorating and inspiring character of the open space methodology. What is also important, is that the methodology has prevented any single strong actor from dominating the Forum. If the open space methodology has been the strength of the WSF, it can, in certain respect, be considered also its weakness. This is true, in particular, when it is hoped that the same methodology could be applied to decision-making procedures at the International Council. The (in principle healthy) aversion towards formal structures and rules of decision-making has proven to be a problem, for example, as regards the expansion of the IC. It has been widely recognized for quite a while, that the composition of the IC is imbalanced, regionally (few African and Asian groups participate as well as otherwise (few young people, few black people etc.). However, as agreement could not be reached on the selection process and criteria, the IC was not expanded at all for a long time. Now the process and criteria have been agreed upon and some new members have been accepted.

This example points out that sometimes the denial to agree upon formal rules for the sake of being less hierarchical and less structured, can lead to less democracy, rather than more of it. The non-inclusiveness of the IC clearly was a problem from the point of view of making the decisions concerning the WSF democratically, and began being amended by resorting to formal rules and a procedure for decision-making. It shows that the norms of debate at the IC need to be different from those at the WSF at large. When there is a need to make decisions, the debate cannot remain open-ended forever; a closure has to be achieved. Declaring closure of the debate, even by consensus, is nearly always an act of power: usually some participants of the debate need to be persuaded to withdraw their original propositions, and agree to join the consensus for the sake of making a decision and moving on to other pressing matters. But there are situations in which decisions, even against the viewpoints of some of the participants, lead to more democracy than leaving the decisions unmade.

I do not mean to argue that all decisions at the WSF IC ought to be taken by vote – whoever convinces 50,1% of the members that they are right would win. This would amount to a tyranny of the majority. But structurelessness and the lack of formal decision-making procedures may, in the end, amount to the tyranny of a very small minority, even one single participant. The absolute demand for consensus without any pressure from anyone to any direction, leads in practice to the institution of a veto right: any single participant of a debate can stop any decision from being taken. As can be seen from the functioning of the UN Security Council, institutions where a right of veto exists are extremely difficult to reform democratically.

The norms of debate and decision-making processes at the WSF IC, therefore, ought to be somewhere between these two extremes. Wherever they are on this scale, however, they still differ from the norms of the open space methodology applied at the WSF itself. At the Forum itself, the debate is open-ended and need not lead into any resolutions; at the IC a closure has to be reached in order to arrive at decisions.

This double standard of the norms of debate is essential for the functioning of the WSF. The norms of continuous open-endedness and avoidance of closure secure the inclusive and non-hierarchical character of the forum itself and protect it from being overtaken by any influential actors. The norms for achieving closure of the debate and decisions at the IC serve to guarantee that decisions are being made and the forum movement is moving somewhere. These norms and formal decision-making procedures therefore ought not to be feared in the context of the IC, but to the contrary, strengthened. It must be always asked, whether in any given situation, the lack of rules actually leads to less democracy that instituting rules would.

These considerations are also relevant to the development of democratic theory. Broadly speaking, it is possible to make a distinction of theories of deliberative democracy between those who emphasize consensus-seeking on the one hand, and those who stress the importance of continual, open-ended, at times confrontational debate on the other. The first type of theories argue, that there is a need for common norms of debate, including rational argumentation, civility, transformation of preferences of the participants as the result of the argumentation by others, and reaching consensus in the end. The theorists in the second camp criticize these criteria by pointing out that setting the norms and criteria for the rationality of the debate and declaring that a consensus has been achieved are all acts of power. They argue for the continual questioning of the norms of rationality and civility, the plurality of the forms of expression the avoidance of closure of the debate by any means, including consensual.

The example of the WSF shows that neither strand of democratic theories described above is correct, applied to any political debate anywhere. Rather, their applicability is context-dependent. In contexts where the primary purpose of the debate is to bring out different points of view, including those which usually are left in the margins of the political public sphere, and to question the norms and limits of political debate, the latter strand of democratic theory presented above seems to provide the most fruitful framework for debate. This applies to the WSF at large: its purpose is precisely to bring out marginalized voices in the public debate on globalization, and to question the limiting of the realm of the political by the neoliberal agenda, which seeks to define more and more issues as ‘economic' and, thus, not subject to democratic political debate. However, in a context such as the WSF IC, where decisions are made, the norms of debate prescribed by the first strand of theories described above seems more applicable. To avoid situations where the inability to make decisions actually decreases democracy in the IC, some norms of debate and decision-making, including those concerning the reaching of closure (if necessary, even by voting) need to be agreed upon. This does not mean that these rules ought to be the eternal truth. To the contrary, democratic rules must always be subject to democratic procedures of revision. But it has to be accepted that sometimes even less than perfect decisions are better than no decisions at all.

The general conclusion to be drawn from the example of the WSF is that normative theories of the public sphere are context-dependent. In contexts close to decision-making, agreed-upon norms and procedures for debate, including those concerning how the debate is to be (provisionally) closed, are necessary. However, in broader contexts, where there is no need for common decisions, the stress ought to be on the plurality of voices and the continual questioning of the limits of the political. The real challenge is how to cultivate exchange between these different types of contexts. To this end, institutional arrangements are needed, which enable arguments and actors from public debate at large to enter the more limited contexts of debate that are close to political decision-making.

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