Tag Archives: anarchism

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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the church of anarchism

One of the impetuses for starting this blog was this realization: anarchism is my faith.

I have been anti-“organized religion” and unable to convince myself of the existence of any kind of deity for my entire life (it’s easy when you are unbaptized and raised by people with vaguely Christian, undefined belief systems). I have never considered myself a person of faith, and the word “spiritual” never speaks to me. I didn’t embrace the identity of atheist for a long time because I rejected the idea of defining myself at all in terms of religion (atheism meaning that theism is the standard and I am the exception). I felt that religion, spirituality, and faith were essentially irrelevant to my life; I have a holistic view of the world and how it works that simply does not include (or need) a deity or other belief system to make it work.

But one day I realized that my view of the world is profoundly anarchist. Anarchism, for me, is the way I imagine how religion must be for other folks. It is a belief system that shapes the way I act, how I interpret events on both a macro- and micro-scale, and is my moral grounding. It is an irrevocable part of my identity in the most basic ways.

I can’t help it, and I can’t change it, which is one of many reasons why I spend so much blog space talking about anarchism as a thought crime. I cannot live my life attempting to not be an anarchist, even if being an anarchist makes me ‘illegal’ in some sense in the U.S.

One of my favorite passages in sociological writing is from Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. A lot of the book is full of offensive racist garbage, but the conclusion describes my anarchist ‘faith’ profoundly:

…“we can say that the faithful are not mistaken when they believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves. That power exists, and it is society.”

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Thoughts on Spain

I will be the first to admit that I haven’t been engaged with the protests/encampment/revolution in Spain the way that I should have been. This is partly because of events going on in my personal life, and partly in an attempt to keep me grounded in the here and now instead of wishing I had been somewhere else at just the right moment, which at least for me is the danger of watching such inspiring things happen from afar.

"we don't represent any political party or labor union, we are outraged citizens"

Happily, Counter Cartographies Collective has done some nice blogging about what’s going on so I don’t have to go too far out of my way to catch up. There are also some good materials at the Edu-factory site, and the website for the Acampada Sol itself is pretty amazing.

In her autobiography, Emma Goldman often labeled as anarchist folks who themselves thought they subscribed to other forms of political thought like liberalism or socialism. For her, anarchism was a way of approaching the world, the spirit of treating everyone with respect (ok, except for those who were part of the state’s apparatus of repression) and fighting for a world where everyone could be free in every sense of the word. More than any one specific political theory or Marxist strain, this has always seemed to me a pretty reasonable way to think about anarchism, not to mention an appropriately anarchic one.

From what I have read about the Acampada Sol, it resembles very closely my idea of an anarchist space. It has assembly-based decision-making, an egalitarian ethos that constitutes a constant struggle, and at least some effort to recognize and valorize the subaltern (and maybe more than that). Is it perfectly nonhierarchical? I’m sure it isn’t. But that isn’t the point of an anarchist space. The point is to create alternatives to capitalism and liberal democracy in such a way that the possibilities for radical freedom are expanded rather than foreclosed.

In other words, if you believe, as I do, that ideally all people should be able to determine the right course for themselves, then working to create or support a system of representative democracy, even on the small scale in an encampment, is to immediately give up the possibility of ever living in a free world. Experimenting with other forms of relating and governing spaces, on the other hand, even if they are difficult, faulty, or even unsustainable, leaves open other possibilities.

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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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self care

Today I was thinking about a few changes I have made that have improved my life the most in the last few years. Though it’s my understanding that many anarchists are suspicious of psychology/psychoanalysis/etc. as a whole because of its individualist tendencies, I find psychobabble both essential for coping with my life in the world that I have been given as well as incredibly helpful in allowing me to dream about what it means to be really happy. For me, this harmonizes well with an anarchist desire to be fulfilled, in this world and not the next.

(Aaron Fermer - SFWeekly)

First, I have learned to be kind to myself (or at least I have learned that I should try to be kind to myself). Being kind to oneself doesn’t need to contradict being kind to others, nor do I want to go down the slippery slope of yuppie justification for materialism. Kindness isn’t manifested through consumption. For me, being kind to myself comes in the form of asking what I need or want from a day or a given situation. If I am feeling unhappy, asking what I might need in order to feel better and then not feeling guilty if I place those needs first and foremost in my day. Anarchism is a lot about creating genuine interconnection with others, and I am a lot more capable of doing that when I feel satisfied and at peace with myself than when I feel guilty or angry.

The second is the power of an open mind (which has some nice parallels in what I think works best within anarchism itself). I only learned to meditate, for example, when I figured out that it wouldn’t work if I tried to actively shut out all my thoughts. Rather, I have to recognize and accept that how I feel is how I feel, and what pops into my mind is uncontrollable. It does no good to try to stop either. What I can control is how much time and attention I give to these thoughts, just as I can control how I act on my feelings. Once I figured out the key to meditation was opening rather than closing my mind, I was able to relax for possibly the first time in my life.

Just some thoughts I wanted to throw out there since in my experience, those who feel the most committed to radical kindness to others are often the worst at practicing this with ourselves. Recognizing privilege can make us being kind to ourselves feel indulgent and selfish, but what are we working so hard for if not a world where we can ALL feel fulfilled? And we’ll never get there if we’re all burnt out.

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anarchist culture and me

In Direct Action, David Graeber describes anarchist spaces in New York as being always in a state of construction and becoming. He sees this as an important anarchist value, wanting to be in the place “where the spectacle itself is produced” (p 279).

I think about this and other aspects of anarchist culture a lot, because I don’t know if it’s just me and my own insecurity or what, but it’s things like that that make me constantly feel strangely out of place among anarchists in the US. Despite more or less wholeheartedly sharing values, I just don’t get a lot of the cultural stuff. Even though I love Johnny Cash, I love wearing bright colors. Even though I get that most standards of cleanliness were propagated solely to sell more chemical cleaning products, I still feel better when I take a shower every day.

It’s important and legitimate for me to understand and acknowledge the importance of my own happiness, and so I try to balance changing the world with sometimes taking the easy (or comfortable) way out.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to hang around with all black wearing dirty punks. I do. But somehow I end up feeling like an aged hippie among such folks, as if they are the only authentic anarchists and I’m nothing but a liberal. Sometimes I think this is partly the result of an age difference: I wonder how many of the punk anarchist kids will remain committed to anarchist ideals in the long run versus how many will gradually reintegrate into yuppie life because they set the anarchist culture bar so high for themselves. I wonder if the conflation of youth culture and anarchist culture is really endemic to anarchist ideas, as Graeber thinks, or if it’s because anarchist spaces are overrun with kids just looking to rebel. I like “Anarchy in the UK” just as much as the next punk, but when it comes down to it, I have to reject the late 70s punk vision of “anarchism” (which is actually more like capitalism-fueled nihilism) and remain committed to the vision of love and solidarity that I find so compelling.

On the other hand, I know that age is a form of hierarchy and a way for me to claim a bit of rank on my anarchist comrades. And while it is a legitimate critique to hope that white folks aren’t just slumming it as anarchists for a few years of their late teens, it is deeply unfair of me to assume that they are.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I’m in the market for a long-term, sustainable kind of anarchist community for myself and I’m having trouble finding it. Is it because I’m missing something?

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First blog post ever: wherein I learn to blog. (And how to not use “wherein” in all the post titles.)

This blog is my coming out party. For years, I have held very strong and, I think, well-grounded political views that I have been afraid to share within the broader public space for fear of state repression. I am still afraid of repression, but after a lot of thought, I have decided that since I can no more cease being an anarchist than I can suddenly cease being a person who likes to read or loves dogs or force myself to believe in a god or any of the other fairly fundamental parts of my personality, it isn’t going to be a good long term plan to be afraid of expressing my political beliefs. It’s just not going to make me happy. In fact, censoring myself from talking openly about politics is actually going to make a pretty significant part of me miserable.

So, there you have it. I am an anarchist.

It’s done. I said it. And I will stand by it. We will get to what “anarchist” means later—hey, I have a whole blog now for that!—but right now I want to briefly explain why I was afraid to say this. After all, I live in the U.S., a country that has enshrined free speech to the point of valuing it more than anything, even to a fault, right?

Ok, maybe that’s disingenuous, because you probably didn’t get this far if you were really that naïve. But I do want to point out one of the primary reasons I was (and am) scared. In 2009, an Assistant US Attorney made the following statement: “[Scott DeMuth]’s writings, literature, and conduct suggest that he is an anarchist and associated with the ALF movement. Therefore, he is a domestic terrorist.”

He didn’t say that DeMuth did anything. He doesn’t even say he wanted or tried to do anything that made him a terrorist. Apparently the simple fact of possessing a certain way of looking at politics is sufficient cause to label someone a terrorist in a U.S. courtroom. That, folks, is what used to be known as a thought crime.

And by that logic, based solely on this blog post, someone could drag me into a courtroom and call me a terrorist too.  Which would be a shame, cause as an anarchist I have so much more to say, and so much more faith and love for this world and the people in it than most of the liberals I know.

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