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Collective decision-making at Occupy Wellington, NZ.


The occupy general assembly in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, was my first experience of collective decision making on a large scale.

The initial day of action attracted several hundred people who were abuzz with anticipation at the potential of a little cooperation. It didn’t feel at all like a traditional activist crowd, with plenty of people who had never attended a protest in attendance, and many who wouldn’t identify as activists at all.

Similar to other Occupy camps around the world, the growing population of the Wellington camp made a series of conscious decisions that organically structured the community into working groups, each around a shared purpose. These groups then organized themselves into more specific sub-groups, leading to working groups made up of an individually chosen specialization for each participant. A kitchen provided three meals to up to 70 people a day, supplied with donated or dumpstered food. A hospitality crew welcomed new arrivals. A comms team put out press releases, gathered and reported back on international movements and communicated with camps around the country and elsewhere. The GA was structured in such a way that each working group would report back to the wider community, and these groups were mandated an appropriate level of autonomy for each group to efficiently take care of their own sphere of activity.

When the collective process functioned well, participating in the GA was a truly transformative experience. I saw several hundred excited individuals quickly reaching decisions that were better than anyone could have proposed on their own. Every voice was heard and no one felt alienated from the process. I knew that this was happening all over the world, at the same time, on a massive scale and it was like nothing else I had experienced.

But when the decision-making protocol broke down, empowerment quickly turned into soul-destroying alienation. The immense amount of time and effort the stalled decision-making process took was crushing. Sharing information is critical for building consensus, but can be extremely difficult in a rained out campsite. Loud and frequent voices often exerted disproportionate influence over group discussions, meaning marginalized voices remained unheard.

I had read about the “tyranny of structurelessness” in consensus-based groups, the lapse into factions and the emergence of informal dictatorships — but I’d never seen it happen in person. The knowledge that this too was happening in Occupy camps all over the world, and right in front of me in a community I cared deeply about, was depressing.

The mass participation of millions of people in the 2011 movements was a clear and global call for public participation in decison-making at every level. It was a call for decentralized democracy on a global scale, a process that takes the decision-making influence of self-interested institutions and redistributes it back into the hands of people and communities.

But the face-to-face lived experience of Occupy really drove home to me how fragile collective decision-making can be, even in relatively small groups. Though frustrating, this fragility didn’t seem irresolvable. In large part the organizational problems we faced at Occupy were the result of mundane and practical constraints. Simply requiring everybody to be in the same place at the same time meant that the cost of participation in the decision-making process was too high for it to be accessible for most people, or to involve people who were geographically distributed. These pitfalls didn’t seem like a problem inherent to collaboration, but a technical challenge to be solved.

— Matthew Bartlett is from Wellington, New Zealand

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