Defining goals, structures, roles and means of decision making are all crucial parts of founding and maintaining collectives, cooperatives, and other groups. Many aspects of organisation however remain ad hoc, informal and opaque, creating the possibility of power imbalances, misunderstandings and exclusion.
In the book Anarchic Agreements: A Field Guide for Organizing (PM Press, 2022) activist-scholars and organisers Ruth Kinna, Alex Prichard, Thomas Swann and Seeds of Change explore how the creation and use of constitutions can strengthen groups and coalitions and streamline horizontal decision making. The following excerpts discuss key questions that any group should consider and define during its formation.
Constitutions are designed and built as pacts or agreements that can progressively equalise power relations, create standards for the relationships between one group and another, and specify when and under what conditions these standards can be challenged, revised, or even disposed of all together. Because society is always changing, as is our understanding of it, so should our constitutions. – Ruth Kinna, Alex Prichard, and Thomas Swann, 2022
Constitutionalising is a package of activities that we generally think of separately, but which all work to challenge, divide, and balance power… [It] also involves setting out the rules of a community, as well as dividing power into institutions and sub-groups, and specifying how these groups relate to one another. It is also about developing decision-making procedures, such as majoritarian democracy or consensus decision-making.
Constitutions not only solidify the culture of a group and give it political power; constitutions also curb the arbitrary (unconstitutional) decision-making power of hidden groups, e.g., cliques or friendship groups, and they do this by making those groups visible, balancing them against other groups, and establishing transparent decision-making processes. Rules, institutions, decision-making processes and the poetic preambles, work together in complex and highly dynamic ways to prevent one person or group of people—a king or a parliament or a council—from arbitrarily dominating others.
Key Areas of Constitutionalising for Groups
Exactly what questions a group needs to work out will depend on its context. For example, in a workers’ co-op that provides its members with a wage it will be important to work out how to reach decisions that everyone finds fair. In this scenario the decisions will have a fundamental impact on people’s livelihoods.
In a community bring-and-share meal there may be a lot less decision-making required, and the decisions themselves will affect people a lot less. In this case, the group may never agree on a decision-making method and may simply have an informal chat at the end of the meal if an issue comes up, for example, when to have the next meal! However, the five areas discussed below cover the bases for most groups.
1. What is the Group?
- What is the purpose and what are the aims of the group?
- What principles and values do we share?
- What do we need to do to achieve our aims?
- Who can join the group?
These questions are at the foundations of any group. However, it is very common for a new group to dive into “doing stuff” without taking time to think about these questions. For example, if neighbours get together to fight gentrification in their area, they might assume that the reasons were obvious.
But they could get a much clearer picture of where everyone is at by asking questions with fairly concrete answers like: “What are examples of the things we want to stop?” “What impacts will these things have, and which ones are we worried about?” This conversation would give a much clearer picture of how much people had in common and could provide the basis for setting out the purpose and values of the group.
2. How Are Decisions Made?
- How does the group make decisions (e.g., by consensus, by voting)?
- Who needs to be involved in what kind of decisions?
- What decisions need to be made at regular meetings and what can be decided outside of those meetings?
Decision-making is critical to how a group puts its values into practice. For example, a network that exists to support local groups affected by the same issues might have the empowerment of those local groups as one of its core aims. It would be contradictory to then have a top-down decision-making structure, where a central committee in the network tells the local groups what to do. Instead, important decisions in the network might be made by representatives or delegates of all the local groups coming together a few times a year. The network might also decide that each local group has complete autonomy to do what they want, provided that no one uses the network’s name to do things that go against core shared policies.
3. How Do We Get Things Done?
- How often do we meet?
- Are there regular social events?
- How do we communicate among ourselves outside of meetings?
- How do we communicate with those not part of the group?
- Are sub-groups or individuals responsible for certain tasks?
The practices (or institutions) a group sets up to get things done could range from a monthly meeting, through to having nominated signatories on the bank account, to holding a regular stall in town on Saturdays. It could also include how the group socialises— having a bring-and-share meal to start each meeting or going on trips to national gatherings of people interested in the same issues.
The answers to these questions have a big impact on the experience of being part of the group, and how effectively things get done. Talking about how to organise can help a group find systems that are appropriate for its purpose and for the people involved.
For example, many groups default to deciding everything in whole group meetings and splitting up tasks in an ad hoc way because it seems more egalitarian, when a well-thought-through working-group system could in some ways be equally democratic and more efficient. Groups also often default into socialising in the pub after meetings, and members don’t think about more inclusive ways of getting to know one another. Ideally, group practices should reflect the members’ aims and principles. For example, if a co-op aims to promote cooperation, in line with core cooperative principles, it might join regional and national cooperative networks and work collectively to strengthen the whole movement.
4. What Policies Do We Need?
- How will we respond if someone makes a complaint to the group?
- Can we introduce rules that make the group safer to be in, for example, a commitment to supporting anyone who feels harassed or bullied?
- Is there a system that would make it harder for someone to steal group funds?
A policy doesn’t need to be a five-page document in carefully crafted legalese. It could include unwritten rules like not letting dogs use the allotment as a toilet. In other situations, it is important to have written policies that are worded carefully and to make sure everyone knows about them. Big public events often require that everyone reads and agrees to the safer spaces policy before entering. Co-ops will often have a “complaints”, or “disciplinary and grievance policy” that makes it clear what behaviours are totally unacceptable, and what processes should be in place before a member is asked to leave.
This area is particularly sensitive, because there is a high risk that people will experience these rules and policies as restrictive or even oppressive. It is also difficult to make a rule which fits all situations and recognises everyone’s needs. It can help if people recognise that a policy isn’t usually chosen because it is the only right way to do things, but because it is a way that everyone can agree on. For example, there are many systems for sharing the cleaning in a communal house, and many different ideas about what it means to be clean enough. Coming to basic agreements about the housework can ease a lot of tension, especially if the agreements are reviewed when new people join.
5. How Can We Make the Group Empowering?
- Are there particular groups of people who are likely to be disproportionately empowered or disempowered in the group?
- Can we introduce “checks and balances” to make it more difficult for individuals or sub-groups to gain too much influence?
- What can we do to make it easier for people who are currently marginalised to take on roles and help shape the group?
We join groups to achieve, or resist, more than we could individually. To make empowerment a reality, it needs to inform all the other areas involved in “constitutionalising”.
Making decision-making as democratic as possible is an obvious example. Other examples include creating systems to reduce the barriers to people getting involved, like paying baby-sitters so single parents can attend more easily, or choosing a venue that is as widely accessible as possible. Similarly, maximising empowerment can shape the aims of the group. For example, a trade union could prioritise issues affecting the lowest paid and most precarious workers. Linking up with like-minded groups can also help.
The priorities of each group will depend on its situation and members, so it is useful to start by thinking through any dynamics that are specific to your context. If a homeless action group includes “allies” who are securely housed there will need to be careful thought about potential power dynamics between them and the homeless people in the group. For example, you will need to think carefully about who speaks for the group in public, who has access to group resources, and whose views shape decision-making most. Similarly, in a project with a big budget, the finance team could easily end up with more than their fair share of influence over decision-making. Steps to ensure that everyone has a basic understanding of the financial situation could help balance that power (and help the whole group make better decisions overall).
In addition to chapters about building durable groups and coalitions Anarchic Agreements: A Field Guide for Organizing includes worksheets and sample constitutions. It can be purchased here.
“A new world is possible and not just in our hearts. Anarchic Agreements is a quintessential field guide for the revolution, answering the practical questions often left out of works of political theory and philosophy. How do leaderless groups organize? How might they create constitutions, balance power and write protocols? How do group cultures and institutions maintain coalitions? This urgent and inspiring how-to is the product of more than twenty years of research. Designed explicitly for everyday use, it contains lived examples and text from current horizontally organized constitutions. These documents illustrate the never-ending process of developing community and keeping collaborations alive in the fairest ways possible. Written by dedicated anarchist scholars and organizers, and based on the widely popular Anarchic Agreements pamphlet series, this book facilitates grassroots activism and provides methods to improve and streamline decision making. It is an inspiring celebration of the novel, complex, and flexible constitutions anarchists have created over time. This book shows how to realize another world, collectively without domination, while leaving the future open to infinite other possibilities.” – Publisher’s website