Occupy LSX Debrief Part 2: Your consensus decision-making sucks a lot sometimes

In the first post I spoke about new entrants to political activism being inducted into certain methods and tactics. One of these methods is consensus decision-making. This can be a wonderful and positive thing and it can also be incredibly crippling. I want to see it challenged before the next surge of political activity because I am tired of seeing people tired out by it, tired of seeing groups fall apart through consensus.

First, let’s state what I have in common with the consensus decision-makers. I share a hatred of representative politics, I see the oppressive nature of majoritarian decison-making, and I understand the desire to give all those who have never had a voice the ability to speak. Consensus seems almost opposite to the ‘democracy’ we have learned to distrust. It must be right, right?

But here’s a couple of what I consider to be bare facts:

1. The meetings of Reclaim the Streets, who used consensus decision-making, eventually became utterly unmanageable. Rumour says that in fact they were ‘managed’ – by a group of core activists who met outside the main meetings to try and actually, y’know, get things done. What is certain is that the decision was eventually taken to break up the big meetings because they could no longer work. RTS never recovered from the fragmentation that followed.

2. The big consensus-based meetings at Occupy LSX achieved very little. Certainly a lot of the people who actually got things done in the camps didn’t go to them. They did, however, utterly burn out those involved in facilitating and running the meetings. Even the smaller working group meetings, also try to reach consensus, were often a painful slog.

Now you can – and I’m sure people will – argue that consensus is going to be difficult because we are not used to it. We are not used to speaking for ourselves or acting together. It’s true. Maybe that is the reason it is so hard.

But let’s start from a different point: let’s look at the technical aspects of consensus decision-making. It is trying to get away from majoritarian politics that silences the voices of those who don’t agree with the majority. One weakness of consensus decision-making is already known by those who use it: certain people who are good at speaking, used to speaking, often dominate. Okay, we can compensate for that, but let’s just note that consensus is not the polar opposite of the type of democracy we have at the moment. We still have to make a special effort to stop it being swung by the loudest voices. Often, let’s be honest, the efforts fail.

Next, we should look at what happens when people really don’t want to fall in with the consensus, often for reasons of ego, ideology or realpolitik. The majority can be dominated by the minority. Okay, this is a known problem and we can deal with it: allow a ‘stand-aside’ option when things really reach an impasse. But let’s note, once again, we still have a system where either a few people can dominate the discussion or where people end up feeling excluded by the decision.

What about – and this is a very common problem – what about if someone disagrees with the way the consensus is going, but they either don’t feel strongly enough to try to block it or they don’t feel confident speaking up? The social pressure on these people not to break the consensus is immense. In the name of banishing oppression we have created an almost irresistable social pressure to keep your mouth shut. We can try to create an attitude of openness to all disagreement but the reality is that we try and often fail. And so people don’t speak.

Now let’s consider something that consensus decision-making really struggles with: sometimes people’s views simply cannot be brought together. People are different. They see the world in different ways. There is one way of dealing with this when it comes to actions, which is for those who want to do the action to split off and do it. Fine, okay. But this divides groups and the point of consensus seems to have been lost. We are no longer engaged in a conversation, we’re off doing our own thing.

This latter evolution of consensus decision-making actually exposes an intensely individualistic streak (derived from individualistic forms of anarchism I suspect) that I think exists in all consensus decision-making: the idea that I can be part of a group while never compromising what I want. In a society that propagandises the virtues of individualism (even if frequently failing to practice them) it is already difficult for us to engage in collective action in which the action is not quite what we wanted to see. But for collective action to happen, particularly on a mass scale, we have to get used to compromises. It simply isn’t possible to get millions or even thousands of people all wanting exactly the same thing. If we are to work together, we are going to have to learn to put aside our own opinions sometimes – perhaps only temporarily, and hopefully being able to express our dissent. Of course, collective action still comes with certain ethical, political and empathic boundaries – we should not subsume ourselves to a group unthinkingly. But consensus decision-making purports to be all about collectivity and my feeling is that it can often hinder it in practice by over-emphasising the individual.

So, of what consensus decision-making was meant to achieve, how much is really left intact after all these glitches and flaws? Is it really so fantastic and radical that we should wear ourselves out trying to make it work in its current form? The only reason I can come up with that political activists have fetishised it for so long is that it looks really alternative. It has a feeling of novelty and yes, even empowerment, when you first encounter it, and thereafter it enables us to distinguish ourselves from those people out there who foolishly vote by a show of hands. Oh how we laugh at them. As we battle agonisingly through a 5-hour meeting.

If you can make consensus decision-making work for you, great, but it just isn’t so wonderful that we should kill ourselves trying to make it work. I think it probably works best in fairly small groups of people with a fairly constant membership. I think personal relationships can give a depth to consensus decision-making that almost make it live up to the radicalness ascribed to it. But I know for sure it does not work in large groups, and in groups where people are constant passing in and out. Occupy LSX for example.

I used to be in a group that encouraged dissensus rather than consensus. That is, we admitted that sometimes people have differing views and we should let the conflicts between them emerge and play out, potentially over long periods. The actual decision-making process went like this: we would make an initial attempt to reach consensus. This would enable everyone to have a chance to speak. Then, if it was apparent we didn’t have consensus, and if all the points of view had been expressed, we would vote. We used a simple majority but you could also work on perhaps a two-thirds majority of those present.

This gave us most of the advantages of consensus, while allowing us to be more honest with each other – we never had to be terrified of breaking the consensus and accidentally extending a meeting already at 3 hours to 5 hours. It also – and this is an important point – worked. By the way, I keep mentioning the length of meetings. That’s because it matters. If your meetings are too long, people will stop going. Meetings are always, however we try to lighten them with good friendships and cake, going to be something of a necessary evil. If your meetings regularly last longer than two hours you’re probably doing it wrong. ‘Wrong’ in the sense that your attempts at organising will probably fail. Most people just can’t take that level of boredom. If you can, good on you. But you will be the remnant who end up pushing decisions when others are so tired of the meeting they’ll just shut up in order to end it. And how democratic is that?

There are other methods of organising directly democratically. Nested councils in which the councils at the bottom choose a spokesperson to go to the next level council. The morbid fear of representation among some activists often prevents this happening, though it has appeared in the form of a ‘spokes council’ from time to time. The key thing is to view the spokesperson not as a representative but as a delegate who can be overruled from below at any time. This system too will have disadvantages, but since it is the one the Spanish CNT – the biggest and most success horizontal organisation I know of – uses, we know that it does work to some extent. Unlike consensus decision-making in big groups of people. Which – did I mention this? – doesn’t usually work (there are exceptions to this, I know, though I think most of them come from more communal societies than ours where people start from a position of less divergent opinions).

I understand that representation doesn’t work. I understand that majority voting alone is oppressive. I just think that consensus decision-making has equal and sometimes worse problems. We need to re-think the virtues of consensus and re-think how we organise. Talking to each other properly about our sitation and our viewpoints is a wonderful thing, but it does pall after a few dozen hours of meetings, and then it would be great if we could go out and, y’know, do stuff. In particular, in line with Part 1 of this Debrief, I think that we need to build large-scale local and national organisations (international too). We simply won’t do that with consensus decision-making.

If we want our small convergences to be a microcosm of larger-scale change, we should think about changing the way we make decisions even when we do have a small enough group to make consensus work. Whatever methods we use, we need to bear in mind the need to create forms of power strong enough, resilient enough, long-term enough, to challenge the political and economic institutions that dominate our lives. That isn’t easy. If we get stuck on one form of organising with a mixed track record at best, it will be even harder.

Occupy LSX Debrief Part 1: Your Temporary Autonomous Zone isn’t as cool as you think

Sparked by a recent conversation I have decided to finally get around to an OccupyLSX debrief that I wish I had read elsewhere. This is Part 1 of 2, and they are the lessons I personally see in Occupy LSX, not some outline of what ‘really’ happened or an attempt to shut down other debates. If they seem a bit critical, it is only from a position of wanting future actions to be better than the actions we have seen so far.

Politics in the rich Western countries still lives in the shadow of 1968, and when it comes to the rhetoric and tactics of ‘radical’ political activists, the shadow of the situationists in particular. I can understand why: the situationists are cool. They were cool at the time and they are still great to read.

“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth”
― Raoul Vaneigem

Cool huh? Hakim Bey, a successor to the situationsts, wrote things with titles like “Against the Reproduction of Death,” which is way better than any title by George Monbiot. He also wrote about the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a joyous space of liberation created among the hostile forces of the world. He said this about it: “Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (“attempt”), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma.”

Which is great. I just wish people took him at his word there. His writings on TAZs are very inspiring in places but there is one problem: there is a constant, gaping inability to unite the joyous moments of liberation in a TAZ with long term liberation. He flits between saying the TAZ can only exist for a moment, and saying it is all we can expect in the face of the power of the state, to apparently talking about it as a long term tactic. The term Permanent Autonomous Zone appeared later, but if you’re looking for a real way to bridge the gulf between moments of liberation and a liberated society Hakim Bey will never provide it.

This shouldn’t surprise us so much. Peter Lamborn Wilson, as his parents knew him, is somewhat mystically inclined and has probably spent too much time at the knees of Sufi and Hindu masters to focus properly on the nitty-gritty of long-term organising. Some of his writing definitely projects the TAZ as something almost mystical, and the step between the TAZ and a liberated society is as obscured as you would expect of a mystic. I’ve nothing against mysticism per se. If all we ever get from a Temporary Autonomous Zone is a Temporary Autonomous Zone we shouldn’t blame Wilson but ourselves for taking him too seriously. And you know who else never provided a bridge between moments of liberation and a transformed society? Most of the rest of the situationists whose tactics greatly influence activism to this day, even amongst those who’ve never read them. They grappled with it to vary degrees but their tactics never evolved to create long term liberation.

That’s the theoretical stuff, and I know autonomous zones appear without participants ever knowing about the idea of the TAZ, so the point here is not to have a purely theoretical debate. Here’s the practical stuff that led me to go on about this: I’ve now seen two (2) surges of political activism, both of which brought lots of new people into unmediated anti-establishment politics for the first time. The first was about ten years ago in the form of the anti-capitalist, alter-globalisation [insert preferred name here] movement. The second was a mixture of student activity and Occupy (there was also anti-cuts activity going on around the country but my experience of this was that it was mostly seasoned activists and established groups).

As new people come into political activism they are inducted into particular ways of doing things by older activists, much of it derived (possibly unknown to both pupils and teachers) from the activists and writers of 1968 and from their descendants. One of the results of this is that we get some fantastic (and that’s not sarcastic – I really do like them) situationist-inspired action and beautiful Temporary Autonomous Zones in the form of occupations – of streets, squares, classrooms, libraries – and what happens then? Well, not much. They end. Nothing long-term comes out of them. If anything, as Occupy LSX progressed it became less, not more likely that something long-term would come out of it. Momentum was lost to the needs of maintaining the space and keeping together a bunch of people so diverse in views that it became a weakness as well as a strength.

It is important to emphasise that the maintenance of these spaces sucks up a huge amount of energy. It is obvious why: you are trying to hold back the forces of society and economics around you in every moment. These spaces are by their nature intense and people happily throw themselves into the task of keeping them alive. And then they burn out. Because it isn’t sustainable. You can’t defend against the police and bailiffs forever. You can’t feed and clothe the homeless, try to cure all the ills of capitalism while plotting the downfall of capitalism, for very long. People burn out really quite quickly, and then what?

Meanwhile there are all those people with full time jobs or caring roles who simply cannot offer the level of energy necessary to begin with. What about them? Can they not be part of our revolution? People often talk about these spaces as a microcosm of a future liberated world, yet this microcosm appears not to include people who have major duties besides politics. That doesn’t even sound like a great future world to me. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hanging around with political geeks like myself.

It was difficult to discern anything long term that came out of the anti-capitalist movement – some writings and relationships aside – and it is difficult now to discern anything long-term that has come from Occupy or from the surge in student activity. Sure, some friendships were made, some networks formed or strengthened – and who knows what might come of that? – but mostly the autonomous zones collapsed and that was that. This is really sad. But I think the saddest thing is that if people don’t talk about this and try to think of different ways of acting – possibly not involving the 68 crew and Peter Lamborn Wilson – then I think the same thing will happen again next time.

I may have sounded a bit mean to the situationists so far, but now I’m going to be even meaner. This is so mean that I’m going to have to whisper it to you: the sixties revolution failed. We should probably stop obsessing over the literature and tactics of failed revolutionaries and get on with writing and doing our own shit. Sure it’s mean, but at some point surely we have to think that what is really radical is creating change. We haven’t done it yet so we need to come up with some new ideas and new strategies, not get hung up on ideas framed as ‘radical’ but with proven inability to translate into long-term liberatory action.

In particular we need to think about long-term organising, substantial new networks, permanent organisations. We should think about large-scale membership organisations again, which in the form of trade unions have achieved much over time (Not that I am suggesting unions are the only worthwhile form, on the contrary I think we absolutely have to organise beyond as well as in the workplace right now). We should think about internet-enabled networks with nodes in the real world. We should think about how to resource campaigns – skipping food and benefit gigs are great but they are not practical across a large-scale movement.

Above all, we need to stop putting so much energy into things that are manifestly temporary. If we don’t shift our energies into more permanent tactics then I fear the next surge of political activity will give us the same results as this one: memories of a few glorious moments together, and a few individual transformations, amidst banditry and exploitation by those in power, entirely uninterrupted by our moments of autonomy.