Organisational Philosophy

Back in the days of the World Social Forum and anti-globalisation movements, and no doubt before and since, there has been an ongoing debate between the so-called ‘horizontals’ and ‘the verticals’ about the best way of organising and deciding within social movements.

The Horizontals

Horizontals are those who believe in more participatory, egalitarian decision making processes made by volunteer activists on the basis of consensus. There are certainly some advantages to these structures, not least in being accessible to people who want to be more active in supporting campaigns for social change, as people are more likely to be motivated and inspired to be ‘active’ when they feel they have a say in decisions about how the movement they are supporting are made.

Horizontal structures tend not to have large, cumbersome and expensive bureaucracies and can therefore be thought of as more cost effective than professional, vertical organisations with high staffing costs. More vertical organisations, such as many national and internal non-governmental organisations, invariably see their members as a source of finance via their subscriptions. Members are also usually mere passive recipients of information about what the professional activists / lobbyists are doing in their name, with the financial resources they provide, but without much in the way of any actual say about the direction taken and tactics employed by the organisation and movement they support.

We are sympathetic to these horizontalist concerns.

Ultra-horiztonal approaches, popular in anarchist movements, are those with an almost total absence of hierarchy or clearly defined structure, with the term ‘collective’ often used to describe the group. Critiques of both horizontal and ultra-horizontal approaches focus on the extent to which they can result in a ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ whereby opaque, informal hierarchies exist that enable charismatic individuals to dominate through friendship networks, without the transparency and accountability generated by formal decision making structures. As it is often unclear to new-comers how important decisions are made, such movements can become cliquey and exclusive and are prone to corruption when charismatic leaders can do as they please without fear of accountability, politically or financially.

Movements which become over-reliant on solely voluntary labour are also highly vulnerable to ‘burn out’. Talented and skilled activists will be willing to work for free for a while, inspired by their ideological commitment to the cause. However unless they have considerable private wealth to fall back on, something only available to the most privileged in society, sooner or later they are going to need to start to earn a living through their activism, thereby covering the basic essentials of survival such as housing, transport and food. Working full-time on a campaign, often in the face of daunting circumstances and powerful vested interests, is also very demanding in mental health terms. Key activists, or leaders, therefore need supporting and rewarding if their leadership is to be sustainable, which it is in the long term interests of the organisation or movement of which they are part.

Another factor exists that can bring about the demotivation of key activists emerges in ultra-horiztonal, ‘collective’ contexts when there are inevitable inequalities of time, energy, skill and experience amongst the members of the group, yet everyone has the same decision making powers. As a result, someone who turns up on the day of an event and participates in a non-leadership capacity has equal say as someone who has spent weeks working full time to prepare and run the event. In such settings, when ‘leaders’ seek to make decisions, they are vulnerable to being asked ‘what gives you the right to decide’, to which there can be no answer. Such leaders invariably end up feeling profoundly dis-empowered and demotivated as a result, therefore often leaving to find more supportive environments in which to work.


A compromise solution, fusing the benefits and advantages of horizontalism and verticalism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, referred to as ‘diagonalism’. Such an approach appreciates the need for committed, full-time ‘leaders’ to be given more decision making powers / authority than people who participate on a more occasional basis. Diagonalism also recognises the limitations and shortcomings of consensus-based decision making processes, particularly within larger groups, in which the necessary unanimous agreement, without which action cannot happen, can be obstructed by the opposition of a single individual, regardless of their knowledge, experience or skill. It is also wise to recognise that some people have technical skills and experience in narrow, specific and often important areas and they therefore need to be given the authority to act in these areas if an effective job is to be done.

In a similar manner, the sustainability of a movement is likely to be much greater if key people who are leading the movement are supported and rewarded in a manner which sustains their work. Transparent, accessible structures need to be in place to insure that ‘leaders’ are accountable to the wider membership and that it is easy for new-comers to the movement to know how decisions are made, by whom and how they can influence these decisions.

It is therefore the responsibility of leaders of diagonal decisions-making structures to decide when it is appropriate and effective to broaden out decision making to the wider membership via participatory structures and when a decision needs to made more narrowly by a person or people with specialist skills or experience. Similarly, the governance structures of diagonalist organisations need to insure that there is at least some element of democracy in the selection of leaders and that leaders are held accountable on regular basis concerning their management and administration of the organisation.

The concept of ‘subsidiarity’, often used when discussing European integration, can be a helpful one in this context, whereby a decision is made at the lowest, most participatory level where it is effective to do so. This does, however, beg the question as to who gets to decide what is ‘effective’ and according to what criteria ? The only answer to this can be that it is the ‘leaders’, accountable to the membership, who decide and that the criteria should not be limited to ideological doctrine that all decisions should be open to all, on an equal basis and only decided by consensus.