Anarchy, Occupy and Constitutionalising

The Anarchy Rules! research team spent three days in Reykjavik in the middle of October discussing Iceland’s crowd-sourced constitution and the attempts being made to get it through parliament after it was rejected by the centre-right coalition government in 2013. As well as speaking to activists such as Katrín Oddsdóttir from the Constitutional Society campaign group, and filmmaker Eileen Jerrett, we also spoke to Pirate Party members and MPs – likely coalition partners in the new government that will be formed after the election at the end of October.

We were invited to Iceland to speak at a conference titled Constitutions: Poetry or Prose and asked to answer the question, ‘from where does the legitimacy of the constitution come?’. In addition to an opening speech by Iceland’s President Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, the conference saw presentations from Berkley legal scholars David Carillo, Stephen Duvernay and Brandon Stracener, and Arne Hintz from Cardiff University. Our contribution focused on taking non-domination as a foundational constitutional principle and how this was made durable in the example of the Occupy movement.

Conversations ranged between the oligarchic tendencies of political parties, the crisis of social democracy, how to reinvigorate public interest in constitutional politics, the significance of Iceland’s constitutional reform process and what anarchists might learn from this, and vice versa.

In the wake of the global capitalist crash of 2008, and the acute difficulties this caused in Iceland, a group of 25 citizens, elected from a wider group of 500, began the process of re-writing Iceland’s constitution. This was partly crowd-sourced and the participatory nature of the process made it unprecedented in constitutional history. This opened an important discussion about who and what Iceland wanted to be and offered an opportunity to (re-)constitute itself. The new constitution contains provisions for citizens to propose legislation, includes protection of the environment and puts international human rights law and the rights of refugees and migrants front and centre. It also proposes redistributing the fruits of Iceland’s natural resources.

Eileen Jerrett’s film Blueberry Soup does well to highlight this existential reassessment and the guarded optimism surrounding the process central to Icelandic politics and the new constitution. But what can anarchists offer in these debates?

Anarchy and non-domination

Despite the clichés about disorganisation and lawlessness as core characteristics of anarchy, rule-making and constitutionalising are in fact central to anarchist politics. From explicitly anarchist groups such as the Anarchist Federation to anarchistic groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World, constitutions and rule-books have played a key role in collective organisation and participatory decision making.

For anarchists, constitutionalism is a practical process through which non-domination is institutionalised. The way anarchists understand non-domination is not a million miles away from the more mainstream contemporary accounts of constitutionalism we find in republican political theory. For both, to be free is to be free from arbitrary interference. Non-domination as a constitutional principle is something around which constitutional design can be structured, demanding consensual systems of rules that remove the arbitrariness typically associated with systems of order that are beyond our immediate control. One to think about this is in terms of a question: what do you have to have in place in order that you can be free from domination?

Our research suggests that there is something to be learned about constitutionalising in general from how anarchists constitutionalise, or rather how they self-constitutionalise.

Five elements of constitutionalising

Taking Occupy as an example (specifically the Occupy camps in New York, London and Oakland), we suggest that there are five aspects of constitutionalising, typical to both anarchists and non-anarchists, that are in dynamic relation with one another. The unique feature of anarchist constitutionalism is the degree to which it is participatory and voluntary. These are:

  1. Declarations and preambles
  2. Decision making
  3. Institutions
  4. Rules and procedures
  5. Addressing power imbalances

Declarations and preambles

One of the first things to emerge from Occupy Wall Street was the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, a text that aimed at being the foundational document of the occupation, much like the Preamble to the US Constitution. Like the US Constitution that begins ‘We the people’, bringing that very people into existence, Occupy’s Declaration constituted the occupation as a group, the 99% as the popular meme went.

This group was constituted against oppression and the oppressors, the 1% and representative systems of government. The Declaration created this group as a community that was inclusive of all the oppressed and had the principle of non-domination as a core value. This inclusiveness was not wholly unproblematic, as we discuss below.

Declaration of the Occupation

Decision making

As well as the declaration, Occupy camps also constituted themselves through decision making procedures. A core decision making process for anarchists is consensus. The General Assemblies and most of the institutions of Occupy (see below) aimed at achieving consensus on all decisions, and voting was only used as a last resort, for example to avoid a block, and even then this demanded a 90% majority, or ‘modified consensus’.

This process was facilitated and participation was increased through the use of hand signals to register agreement and disagreement. Facilitation by a trained team and clear rules to structure people’s involvement were explained at the start of each assembly. Many of the decisions made were existentially constitutive of the Occupations and were as central to the process of constitutionalising as the Declaration itself, if not more so.

There was a popular slogan, often repeated, that ‘this is what democracy looks like!’. This is no doubt contentious, but it is instructive of how seriously activists took decision making processes.


For Occupy the people constituted by the encampments were sovereign and the General Assembly was the sovereign decision-making body. Through consensus decision making and the procedures around it, non-domination was institutionalised. Rather than seeing this as fixed structures or even buildings like parliaments or courts, Occupy’s institutionalisation happened through the embedding of plural constellations of the rules and norms of decision making procedures.

The three main institutions involved were the General Assembly, the working groups that were doing the day-to-day business of the camp and movement (such as media outreach, cooking, demonstrations) and the spokescouncil that was introduced as a way to coordinate working group decisions and activities.

Working groups were functional bodies that took over day-to-day decision making in discreet areas, ensuring that not all decision had to go to General Assembly. The spokescouncil was a system whereby delegates from each working group came together to decide on strategic issues, again minimising participation while maximising explicit consent. The spokescouncil takes its name from the spokes of a bicycle wheel, with delegates coming together from the working groups on the periphery to the decision-making meeting at the centre. The spokescouncil also acted as something of a checks and balance to the General Assembly, primarily by limiting decision making around logistical issues to delegates of working groups and caucuses. But the GA remained ‘sovereign’, a word Occupiers were happy to use.

Rules and procedures

Camp rules and processes were complex and elaborate, often implicit and unspoken, and not always positive. Rules were developed in camp to address perceived corruption and injustice of representative electoral systems and to be open, inclusive, transparent and accountable. As mentioned above, this opposition to existing systems was a core constituting element of Occupy and the non-domination that was at its core.

In the course of the occupations, however, it became clear that types of domination remained, in spite of the explicit rules. One example is sexual abuse. The ways in which behaviours associated with patriarchy were reproduced in the camps gave rise to safe spaces policies and efforts to ensure that protections were put in place. These protections included ‘tranquillity teams’ that would patrol the camps and aim at conflict resolution through reconciliation rather than retribution.

Safer Spaces

Addressing power imbalances

Constitutions routinely seek to balance powers within societies, either between the people and the state, or between the power of capital and organised labour. In order for them to do this, these power imbalances have to be identified first. The Occupy camps were no exception. As well as adjusting rules to support the commitment to non-domination, Occupy camps also entered into a process of self-critical reflection to address concealed or invisible hierarchies, the exposure of which shed light on the powers that constituted Occupy, as well as those that ought not to.

One of the best examples of this came in Occupy Oakland when participants recognised that the language of occupation raised fundamental questions about ownership, property and sovereignty. In the North American context, the camps were sited on land once occupied by Native American peoples displaced by white settlement. Decolonisation was the term used to describe the need for checking the privilege and advantage certain individuals have by virtue of their colour, gender, religion, class, etc.

Decolonize Wallstreet

This process was in keeping with more generalised anarchist practice of uncovering ‘regimes of domination’, as Uri Gordon puts it. One method this was translated into decision making procedures was through the Progressive Stack. This was used during General Assemblies and aimed at structuring the order of people waiting to speak by calling on those with privilege to ‘step back’ and others who are not so often provided with a platform to ‘step up’.

Non-domination as a constitutional principle

For anarchists, non-domination is a normative, constitutional principle that structures the constitutionalising process, either explicitly or implicitly. It accomplishes what mainstream political and constitutional theory expects and does more, mainly because it sees no virtue in relying on the existing institutions to provide for non-domination. Non-domination does not presuppose any particular constellation of institutions; it is in fact consistent with a range of experiments. In this way, taking it as the foundation for constitutionalising suggests an alternative to mainstream accounts of how constitutional politics operates.

The anarchist approach to constitutionalising is not about finding one way to manage all social orders (either through liberal discourse of rights or majoritarian democracy) but of finding ways of expressing it through durable and rule-governed processes. A commitment to non-domination demands vigilance and responsibility, and an active participation in the systems of governance we join daily, whether at work or elsewhere.

Constitutions: Poetry or prose?

Artist's Rendering of the Declaration

So how did our discussion of Occupy help us answer the question posed by the conference title, and what can we learn from the anarchists and anarchists from others involved in Iceland’s experiment in constitutional reform?

The contrast between poetry and prose might be understood as a choice between the heart and head: whether constitutions should meet our dreams and ideals, or whether they should be designed as rational plans to help us resolve political differences. Our view is that the choice is mistaken. Constitutionalising involves poetry and prose, imagination and rational thought. The choice we want to draw attention to is between the constitution as, on the one hand, a document or body of ideas that fixes rules and, on the other, a process of constitutionalising that keeps the rules, ideas and the processes of their revision open. It is in this process that we find the relevance of anarchist politics, of Occupy and the Iceland constitutional reform initiative.