Elements of Liberatory Social Movement Organizations

By the Usufruct Collective


Social movement organizations are groups where people can come together to meet the needs of participants and others through reconstructing new practices, ways of relating, and decision making while also opposing domination, exploitation, and oppression. Social movement organizations can help meet people’s short-term needs while also taking actions to transform society. Social movements organizations vary in many ways. They can be in relationship to community issues, workplace issues, student issues, and beyond. At their best, social movement organizations wisely use free and egalitarian processes to meet short-term, mid-term, and long-term needs of people. However, not all social movements organizations have the kinds of organizational relations, qualities, and contents that make them ethical and effective. Free and egalitarian relations and practices require the means thereof; they will not emerge out of nowhere. The freedom of each and all has objective, universal, and necessary features as well as subjective, particular, and contingent features. The freedom of each and all  needs to be continuously recreated, co-authored, and given life by people responding to unfolding conditions.

While social movements are needed to transform society outside of the official channels of business as usual, social movements can go terribly wrong. For example, some attempts at social movements replicate unfree and unequal structures and contents of the social order that they oppose! Some social movements do not meaningfully oppose unfreedom while others fail to meaningfully reconstruct new ways to meet people’s needs. Given the goal of using free and egalitarian processes to develop free and egalitarian social relations, the following are some foundational elements for social movement organizations. Participants in social movement organizations can agree to shared practices, processes, and goals without participants agreeing on a specific ideological line. With something like the following as a compass, social movements and participants in them will be better able to navigate from here to a better society.

Elements of Liberatory Social Movement Organizations: 

“Not to make agreements from above to be imposed below, but to make accords to go together to listen and to organize outrage. Not to raise movements which are later negotiated behind the backs of those who made them, but to always take into account the opinions of those participating,” (EZLN, 2005).

Self Management: Self-management means people making decisions about what affects them and what they do. Self-management can exist politically, economically, socially, and personally. In self managed organizations, participants make direct collective decisions together about policy instead of being bossed about by rulers. In self-managed organizations, decisions happen through dialogue and agreements between members/participants/those who are affected. In assemblies, people deliberate about needs, abilities, proposals, possibilities, questions, desires/preferences, amendments, and disagreements to make wise decisions. In self managed organizations, after dialogue happens via assembly, decisions are made through direct democracy– often trying to reach full agreement with a fall back to majority decision making within the bounds of the free association of people (Bookchin, 2007, Mckaye, 2012). Decisions can be implemented through volunteering, agreements to share needed tasks, and mandated and recallable committees and mandated and recallable rotating delegates while all policy making power remains with assemblies and participants directly. Committees of self-managed organizations self-manage their activities within the bounds of the policies and mandates decided by the general assembly from below. Self-management can exist in combination with non-hierarchical rights and duties/bylaws/mutual agreements so that self-management happens within the bounds of certain minimal features. Self-management of each and all would mean that self-management is not used to take away the self-management of others. Self-management of each and all gives rise to dynamic collective and individual decisions. Coherent self-management includes the qualities of direct democracy (direct collective decision making), non-hierarchy, and free association. Self-determined relations and practices are necessary for the well-being of persons and characteristically contribute to enjoyable processes and excellent results (Ryan and Deci, 2022). Self-management of each and all creates organizations and practices rooted in freedom and equality in the process of striving towards such freedom and equality. The only way for freedom of each and all to flourish is if people develop organizations, relations, and practices rooted in and continuously recreating such freedom and equality.

For reasons of necessity and desire, social movement organizations can work together on joint actions as well as work together on longer term projects. To do so without rulers, self-management can happen between organizations via dialogue between groups utilizing collectively-authored dialogue and mandated, recallable, rotating delegates of groups for communication and coordination. In such inter-collective decision making, all policy making power is held within self-managed assemblies of participants directly. Self-management on every scale includes and requires inter-collective level self-management. Formal and continuous inter-collective self-management is called Co-Federation.

Mutual Aid: Mutual aid refers to mutual assistance towards meeting needs (Kropotkin, 1902). Mutual aid can be in relation to and aimed at meeting general and specific needs of people such as food, childcare, tools, clothing, shelter, education, meeting spaces, recreational infrastructure, fields, factories, workshops, common projects and activities etc. Mutual aid includes the development of organizations that practice mutual aid and committees thereof, common infrastructure (infrastructure managed by those who need and use it), as well as more informal multidirectional mutual assistance. Mutual aid can be in relation to many common practices and goals. Mutual aid practices, groups and committees that use such practices, common infrastructure, and common resources can assist and be part of direct actions that are opposed to various unfreedoms and injustices. Mutual aid enables social movements to achieve goals, meet their own needs, meet the needs of participants, and needs of others in a way where the burdens and the fruits are shared among participants. Mutual aid can help to develop new economic relations based on mutual-agreements, common infrastructure and management thereof, shared responsibilities, and distribution according to needs in the process of struggling towards a better society– helping bridge-short term and long-term goals. When mutual aid is sufficiently generalized through volunteering and making formal and informal agreements to help each other out, everyone (including those unable to contribute) can be provided a high quality of life and material standard of living.

Direct Action: Direct action, in its most general sense, means acting directly with the cooperation of others to achieve shared goals (Graeber, 2010). However, the way direct action tends to be used in social movements is to refer to a large spectrum of oppositional politics done via acting directly with the cooperation of others to achieve shared goals (Graeber, 2010). Ethical and oppositional direct actions and direct action campaigns involve people acting directly to meet needs in confrontation against unfreedom, injustice, domination, exploitation, and oppression. Oppositional direct action can include everything from occupations, expropriations (including fully seizing hierarchically controlled infrastructure and placing it in the hands of social movements and communities), acts of sabotage, disruptions, property damage, blockades, strikes, pickets, boycotts, insurrections, self-defense and defense of others, etc. Direct action can be distinguished from relying on rulers and business as usual to solve social problems. Rulers and unjust rules have not historically been overturned by the benevolence of those in charge but have instead been overturned by people struggling against rulers and unjust rules from below. Direct action enables social movement organizations to struggle against hierarchical politics, economics, and social relations more broadly to arrive at goals of social transformation. While often associated with revolutionary politics, there are ways direct actions can be used to achieve more modest goals as well. Not only is direct action needed for revolution, it is needed for the flourishing of various intermediary steps along the way. Direct action can be used to achieve short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. While mutual aid is needed for direct actions and direct action organizations to flourish, sufficient direct action is needed to seize the means of existence and production needed for generalized mutual aid to flourish.

Opposition to Hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and oppression: 

This social definition of hierarchy does not point to mere differences in abilities and needs, nor does it point to various forms of non-authoritarian leadership, nor does it point to being a relative expert in some field or subfield of knowledge. The social definition of hierarchy refers to institutionalized forms of top-down command and obedience (Bookchin, 2005). Hierarchies institutionalize domination, exploitation, and oppression. General and specific hierarchies are not inevitable forms of social relations but are instead historically constituted and emerge because of the presence and absence of various conditions (Bookchin, 2005). Far from hierarchies being inevitable or part of human nature, large swaths and many pockets of human history have been rooted in non-hierarchical relations (Boehm, 2001, Bookchin, 2005, Graeber, 2011, Graeber and Wengrow, 2023). Hierarchies lead to a myriad of social problems and are inherently at the expense of the self-determination that people need to flourish (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2011, Ryan and Deci, 2022). There are multiple forms of hierarchy such as but NOT limited to:

Capitalism: Private property (private ownership of means of existence and production– distinct from personal possessions), wage labor (and other exploited labor), class relations, commodity production, for markets, to increase profits (Marx, 1992, Wolf, 2010).
Statecraft: Hierarchical politics (including a political ruling class)+ sovereignty/a monopoly on legitimate use of violence within a given territory (Bookchin, 2005). Such top-down political rule can take many forms.
Patriarchy: Absolute or probabilistic rule by men, gendered divisions of power, labor, rights, and duties, broader patriarchal gender essentialism and normativity, as well as bigotry along gendered lines (Lerner, 1982, Bookchin, 2005).
Racism: The invention and perpetuation of the myth of race and racial essentialism, racialized divisions of power, labor, rights, and duties, and bigotry along racialized lines. (Fields and Fields, 2022). The original and dominant form of racism is white supremacy. (***not all racism can be reduced to white supremacy– for example not all anti-Kurdish racism is white supremacy, nor are ALL racist forms of antisemitism white supremacy, etc.).

The above are brief and non-exhaustive descriptions of some forms of hierarchy. Specific hierarchies can also change overtime while still retaining the features that make them what they are. And different hierarchies can interrelate with each other and compound systemically as well as in the lives of people. When social movements are engaged in ethically grounded oppositional direct actions, they are doing such actions against some hierarchy/domination/exploitation/oppression. And in addition to opposition against institutionalized forms of domination, exploitation and oppression: there are hierarchical features that exist in extra-institutional culture that need to be effectively countered. Opposition to hierarchy includes developing social movements that do not perpetuate and reproduce hierarchical relations. Hierarchical organizations need to continuously develop hierarchical power over others in order to reproduce themselves. If social movements do not sufficiently oppose hierarchy, domination, exploitation, and oppression, then they will be inhibited from meeting the needs of people and inhibited from transforming the world into a collage of free and egalitarian associations and relations.

Synthesizing the above: 

Self-management, mutual aid, direct action, and opposition to hierarchy, can exist in multiple kinds of social movement organizations. Each on their own are necessary but insufficient for ethical and strategic organizing. For example, mere self-management without sufficient mutual aid inhibits achieving common goals and meeting the needs of people. While mere mutual aid work without direct action work can make sense for SOME organizations, mere mutual aid without direct action makes it so there is no oppositional force against hierarchy. And it is technically possible for direct action or mutual aid to be used for nefarious goals if such practices are not rounded out by other qualities (such as the self-management of each and all and opposition to hierarchy). And in addition to each of the above elements being insufficient for social transformation without being rounded out by each other: self-management, mutual aid, direct action, and opposition to hierarchy need to be adapted according to specific conditions, needs, and desires of people. It is not enough to merely use such practices; it is important to use such practices strategically to bridge current conditions to better conditions and long-term goals. The above elements of liberatory social movement organizations can be used to meet short-term, mid-term, and long-term needs of people. Such qualities need to be developed within the means we use for those qualities to flourish as developing ends (Malatesta, 2021). The means of self-management, mutual aid, and direct action, and opposition to hierarchy are needed to multiply such features overtime. *** While such elements are some of the most important features of liberatory social movement organizations, they are not an exhaustive account thereof.

Different Kinds of Social Movement Organizations:

There are multiple kinds of social movement organizations people can form or join to meet needs and contribute to liberatory social transformation. There is community organizing, workplace organizing, student organizing, and beyond (FARJ, 2008). The following section will be a brief overview of some of the most important kinds of social movement organizations. The following kinds of groups can be infused with the above elements of liberatory social movement organizations. It is important to note that the following kinds of groups do not necessarily have liberatory qualities and wise content. Social movement organizations and participants thereof must develop and recreate such elements while adapting to relevant variables.

Community assemblies are organizations people can start or join in regards to specific blocks, neighborhoods, villages, towns, and cities to meet needs through collective action (Bookchin, 2007, Ocalan, 2014). Community assemblies can use self-management to make decisions. Community assemblies can form direct action committees and implement direct actions and direct action campaigns against specific political and economic hierarchies. Community assemblies can potentially oppose any kind of domination, exploitation, and oppression within or even beyond a given region. Community assemblies can also help develop common infrastructure and create a plurality of mutual aid committees and projects according to people’s needs and desires. Communal and intercommunal economics would be self-managed by assemblies of people who need and interface with the economy. Such communal and intercommunal commons would be rooted in meeting needs and desires of people as well as mutual aid and responsibility to upkeep the commons through collective agreements to share the implementation of decisions. Community assemblies and co-federations thereof can be both alternative forms of governance that provide self-managed ways to make decisions and meet needs AND oppositional forces against class relations and hierarchy more broadly.

Labor unions enable workers to meet needs and better their conditions through workplace organizing in opposition to class relations and exploitation. Labor unions can utilize direct action and organize in self-managed ways autonomous from state and business interests. Radical student unions are groups where students can organize against hierarchies on campus, within the education system, and beyond. And while the various functions of tenants unions can be done via community assemblies that also have other functions, tenants unions can be formed when needed and desired. Some tenant struggles can even culminate in the development of common housing connected to community assemblies! There are also prisoners’ unions that can enable prisoners to struggle against the prison system. Various Issue specific direct action groups (and committees of groups) can exist to are focus on something like stopping a gentrification development, or some particularly anti-ecological project, or stopping a war, or stopping a prison from being built, stopping a racist, patriarchal, or xenophobic policy, or confronting fascist and far right mobilizations, or a myriad of struggles against domination, exploitation, and oppression. And there are many issue specific mutual aid groups (and committees of various kinds of groups) that can exist focused around provisioning general and specific needs for participants, social movements, the most impoverished, and people more generally.

The Good Place:

In a good society, self-management would flourish on every scale. In a good society, there would be non-hierarchical, directly democratic, and participatory community assemblies (and co-federations thereof) with embedded councils and rotating delegates, means of existence and production would be held and managed in common, politics and economics would meet needs and desires of people, direct collective decisions would be made through dialogue, people would share in the implementation of policies in agreed upon ways, everyone would be free from domination, exploitation, and oppression, and everyone would be free to make collective and individual decisions about what they do bounded and enriched by the freedoms of others to do the same (Kropotkin, 1906, Bookchin, 2007, Ocalan, 2014, Sixth Commission of the EZLN, 2016, Ostrom, 2021, Dirik, 2022, Usufruct Collective, 2022). Such a goal (and principles in relation to such a goal) shapes the general strategy that should be used which shapes the more variable sub-strategy and tactics that should be used (Correa and Walmsley, 2022).


There are multiple kinds of social movement organizations people can form or join including but not limited to community assemblies, labor unions, and student unions. People can form and join social movement organizations rooted in self-management, mutual aid, and direct action in opposition to hierarchy. People can also join social movement organizations to help spread those processes and practices through dialogue and demonstration in a way that makes social movements more able to achieve the goals they are aimed towards. While some liberatory elements can be forged relatively soon or at group inception, other dimensions take time to meaningfully nourish and develop. Ethically and strategically coherent processes, practices, and goals need to be cultivated and continuously recreated. Social movement organizations and participants thereof can strategically adapt and wield such elements of liberatory organizing according to relevant needs and variables to meet short-term, mid-term, and long-term needs and goals. We all face the hydra of hierarchy in different ways in different contexts. We can choose which social movement organizations we join and/or start with others based on needs, capacities, desires, and conditions to try to find ways to develop a free and egalitarian society and achieve positive goals along the way. It is up to people organizing together to wield the practices of self-management, mutual aid, and direct action against hierarchy towards grander horizons of freedom, equality, and solidarity. As social movement organizations and actions multiply, they can work on joint projects together and when applicable form co-federations. Overtime, through opposition and reconstruction, self-managed social movement organizations can form an alternative to business as usual and overthrow hierarchical rule.

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