Category Archives: anarchy in the USA

consensus vs. unanimity

Now that I’m back in my first world homeland, I’ve started participating in some local Occupy events. Occupy is of course more or less a massification of the organizing principles many anarchists (and others) have long valued. General Assemblies, consensus, and non-hierarchical “leadership” are nothing new, though of course the whole idea is that they will necessarily work a little differently in each particular context because each group should be autonomous in meeting its own needs.

So I tried to withhold judgment when I first started seeing the term “voting” applied to supposedly collective decision-making processes around the country.  Especially when it seemed that in many groups “consensus” had turned in to something more like “90% approval.” Contrary to what you might expect, I don’t think the biggest problem here is the lack of unanimity (though I am skeptical—a post for another day). The biggest problem I see is the elision between voting and decision-making. These are not the same thing! And that should be the whole point.

Voting is individual. Each individual weighs the information available to them, and then makes an individual judgment and casts a vote. This can be done with consideration to the way the outcome might affect others, or to the way that others are voting, but it is still a fundamentally individual act. Voting is also a moment. It doesn’t include the entire process of deciding the options or what people are voting on.

Consensus, by contrast, is a collective process. Consensus isn’t something that just happens at the end of a discussion, the way a unanimous vote might, but is an entire process of decision-making. It may start with an initial proposal, but proposals are brought to the group for consideration and improvement, not for approval/disapproval.  Consensus is something that is built, through careful consideration and adaption of the ideas of everyone present. The idea is that through consensus you get a better outcome or decision than might have happened otherwise, because consensus doesn’t just consider everyone’s vote or opinion equally. Instead it actually becomes something greater than the sum of these opinions. It isn’t just that there are no sore losers (though that can be one advantage), but is a true product of the collective.

The very idea that you could “bring something up for a vote” in a consensus process is antithetical to the process. If there is actually consensus in the group, the group should arrive at consensus. This isn’t some mystical moment, but it is something that can at least partially be felt. If it’s obvious that anyone in the group still has concerns, then there isn’t consensus. If it isn’t obvious, then the focus of the process should shift to feeling out any remaining concerns, addendums, or alterations.

This is a fairly important distinction that is at risk of being lost in what seems to be a fairly large sector of Occupy Everything. Absent of the clarification between the two, participants seem to gravitate toward what is most familiar. In the case of the US, that is individualized voting. And it seems to me that we already know what voting directly rather than for representatives doesn’t look too different from the referendum system already in place in most states. You know, the one that’s completely vulnerable to right-wing manipulation by moneyed interests to do things like pass anti-immigrant laws.

Without consensus processes that actually reflect the spirit and power of collective decision-making, Occupy risks becoming little more than a critique of representative democracy rather than a radical space for building community.

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Has the Tea Party changed US politics for the better?

Political scientists in the US have a sort of conventional wisdom that the informalization of politics—meaning protests and politics in the street instead of in the legislature–is always a bad thing. Mostly because it is usually accompanied by instability of democracy, of the economy, of the whole working system that makes a political entity like a nation-state.  And I agree, this kind of instability can be really risky. The conventional wisdom argues that it’s precisely this context that can open doors to military dictatorships, violent coups, and especially the rise of the Third Reich. They argue that you don’t actually want things to change too fast.

But this firstworlder is a staunch believer that the informalization of politics is the only politics that can be of any use to the poor. A formal political apparatus is really never going to be in the best interest of the poor, though obviously some governments will be better or worse. But the poor are not meaningful constituents of a formal politics, and thus legislative or electoral politics are only ever going to be minimally responsive to the poor, at least without an accompanying informal politics–the threat of roadblocks, strikes, and so on.

And because of that, in the midst of all the excitement (at least on the internet) about the Occupy Wall Street protests, I have started to ponder whether the left shouldn’t be thanking the Tea Party.

Bear with me, because this idea is not fully baked, but my theory goes like this: a lot of the conventional wisdom on the left, at least the mainstream part of it, argues that we must stick with the Democratic Party. We need a broad-based movement, and sticking with the (supposedly) centrist left is our only chance for real change, they say. The unions and the anarchists and the environmentalists need to join hands, like in Seattle 1999, and pull the party with us to the left if we want real social justice, goes the argument. The Tea Party, with their wack-o radical ideas and supposed disdain for the establishment Republican Party, has been doing just the opposite. They have been dreaming of the country they want to see and then demanding it [I’m not sure that’s true, since I don’t believe the Tea Party is actually a grassroots movement, but we’ll overlook that for the moment]. In other words, the Tea Party has provided a counter-narrative, showing that one way to get the party to follow you is not to coddle and cajole it, but rather to spit in its face until you have it begging for your votes.

The Tea Party has yanked the country far to the right, forcing us all into a situation of high stakes politics instead of the constant call to compromise. Could it be that we can thank the Tea Party for showing the US left that if we want to make another world possible, we can’t just hide behind the Democratic Party waiting for them to make it for us?

It’s a half-baked theory, and as a social scientist I’m a little scared to throw it out there without having researched the important empirical facts, but it’s an idea I’m tossing around…

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the anarchist next door

A few days ago, the New York Times published an article about a self-identified anarchist in Austin, TX, who has succeeded in obtaining the FBI records of his own surveillance.

First of all: what? Is it that easy to just obtain your own FBI file, that perennial joke of leftist circles? Apparently it might be. The ACLU has directions for this exact purpose here, and also has a really interesting collection of information on domestic spying here, if you want to read more.

OK, so now that we’ve covered this minor revelation, I can move on to the article’s actual content. Given the media’s need to demonize anarchists (see Graeber 2009), the article is surprisingly flattering in its portrayal of Crow as a peaceful if somewhat unconventional guy who believes in something. This is a stark difference from the vision of anarchist as an outlaw ready to throw buckets of piss at cops in a moment’s notice. And the Times can’t deny that the FBI surveillance—based on the FBI’s own records—is unjust and not a little ridiculous. However, while the article suggests that this is clearly a widespread phenomena:

Other targets of bureau surveillance, which has been criticized by civil liberties groups and mildly faulted by the Justice Department’s inspector general, have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska. When such investigations produce no criminal charges, their methods rarely come to light publicly,

it stops far short of examining how chilling and harmful these practices can be. Mr. Crow’s case is far from an anomaly. Look, for example, at the affidavits presented against the 8 members of the RNC Welcoming Committee during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. In one case, the most incriminating piece of evidence in the affidavit is the fact that the defendant was present at a meeting where another person made an inflammatory statement. I would say I hope we can all agree that such an act is hardly grounds for imprisonment, except that the person in question was in fact nabbed off the street and thrown in jail for several days on the basis of said affidavit.

The evidence presented against Scott Demuth, the evidence which is supposed to justify his six month prison sentence, is that he was in possession of (easily available) Google maps and (easily available) press releases from the Animal Liberation Front. That’s it.

And these are just recent examples from the Green Scare. Look a little further and we easily find hundreds of examples–not only from previous decades like Cointelpro, as mentioned in the Times–but much more recent observations of law officers going undercover at protests and often behaving violently or otherwise “inciting a riot.”

The Times article isn’t news to those of us who care, nor is it an exposé for those unaware of the level of political surveillance in the U.S. It’s more like a human interest story that at least makes the goat-owning punk next door (and me) seem a bit less paranoid and a bit more on the money.

P.S. “Anarchism was the catchword for an international terrorist movement at the turn of the 20th century.” Really, NYT? This totally ignorant and laughable definition is the best you can do, as if Bakunin, Goldman, the Haymarket Martyrs, and even Noam Chomsky never existed? At least read the Wikipedia page for crying out loud.

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