The Complexity of Representation in Social Movement Democracy: The World Social Forum and Occupy Wall Street Movement

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 09:15
Oral Presentation
Micha FIEDLSCHUSTER, Universität Leipzig, Germany
Many social movements criticize representative democracy as a political system and consider representation ill-suited for democratic social movement organizing, which should be participatory in principle. Despite the anti-representative stance, representation is an important aspect of studying democracy in social movements: leadership, diversity in joint statements, and presentations in the media etc. relate to issues of representation, pose challenges to the participatory quality of a movement and often result in tensions. This is the fact in both of my empirical cases: the World Social Forum (WSF) and the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS).

In both cases, representation is largely rejected as a mode of decision-making and organization: The WSF’s charter of principles states that it does not represent global civil society or that anyone can speak for its participants. Nevertheless, representation is an ongoing issue: first, in regard to leadership and vanguardism in the organizational structure. Second, in regard to the Forum’s representativeness of the diversity of activist networks in the world. Based on my fieldwork, I will show how representation concerns the facilitation of building alliances for collective action and the facilitation of inclusive participation.

The OWS set up a radical participatory space in Manhattan and, by that, created a symbolic representation of the marginalized in the U.S. population in the heart of financial capitalism. Representation was strongly objected as a mode of organization and Occupiers had to creatively define mechanisms how to (re)present the movement and its complex constituency in the public without sacrificing their radical participatory ambition.

Comparing the different aspects of representation in both cases, this presentation shows the complex relationship between representation and participation. It makes the case for conceptions of representation that go beyond the classical view, which denotes political representation as a formal process of conferring political power from the electorate to few individuals.