Organizations trying to make a better world from the bottom up often try to “prefigure” the just, democratic society they aim to bring about. They reason that, if their organization itself is not truly just and democratic today, it won’t be able to create a just and democratic society in the future. But what does it mean for an organization to be ‘truly’ democratic? Anarchist-inspired movements, like the Occupy Movement, experiment with a perhaps extreme form of democracy – democracy as revisability – whereby all norms and hierarchies are open to critique and revision by any community member at any moment. This form of democracy maximizes respect for individual (negative) liberty, as it refuses to bind individuals with rules they themselves do not accept. The most common critique of this understanding of democracy is that it makes getting things done impossible, since we need to be able to rely on complex layers of norms and hierarchies to effectively coordinate to achieve social goods and expand our options for action (positive liberty).
In this paper, I argue that democratic revisability is not in fact incompatible with effective coordination: we can have effective coordinating rules that are at the very same time revisable, partly thanks to the affordances of new information and communication technologies. I base my argument on analysis of the Open Food Network’s imperfect realization of democratic revisability. This analysis identifies two key components of revisability. Transparency is the backward-looking aspect that enables participants to understand the intentions behind the organization’s rules, and thereby assess the degree to which their effects are aligned with these intentions, or indeed whether the underlying intentions are still held as valid by the organization. Editability is the forward-looking aspect that enables participants to rewrite these rules in order to realign them with the organization’s present intentions. Revisability is particularly important for democratic organizations as the legitimacy of such organizations’ rules derives from their ongoing endorsement by participants, and this endorsement is most clearly evidenced by the fact that they are genuinely open to revision.
Shanahan, Genevieve. (2022). ‘No decision is permanent!’: Achieving democratic revisability in alternative organizations through the affordances of new information and communication technologies. Human Relations.
Shanahan, Genevieve. (2021, July). Democracy as revisability: The role of internet communication technologies in defining the ‘current version of the truth. 37th European Group for Organizational Studies Colloquium (EGOS), Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Shanahan, Genevieve. (2020, June). The local prefiguration of a global sustainable food system: Reconciling radical democracy and scale through technology. 4th Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) Conference, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Shanahan, Genevieve. (2020, January). Defining the ‘current version of the truth’ while maintaining provisionality in prefigurative organizing. CleRMa workshop, Université Clermont Auvergne, France.