I’ve been meaning to write an essay called “On Process” since my fist trip to Chicago. This isn’t it, but it has the seeds of a lot of the ideas I have, and it is also really fucking long. Any thoughts would be appreciated.
Don’t both this and Mr. Random’s ideas rely on abandoning the leaderless nature of the movement? You would need leaders and a hierarchy; consensus is not fast or responsive.
Honestly, I’ve become entirely disillusioned with the process of consensus, what it is meant to represent, and what function it serves.
“Consensus” is supposed to be the collective analog of “decision-making” in the individual. An individual makes a decision (by some black-box mental process), and then acts on that decision. The decision is supposed to motivate and explain the action; insofar as the decision making process is sensitive to reasons, then the action itself can be understood as rational. Similarly, the consensus achieved at Assembly is meant to serve as the rational, open, democratic process of achieving a shared decision, and as the grounds for motivating and explaining the activity of the collective.
So I am, for a million philosophical, psychological, and practical reasons, skeptical of the individualist ideology at work in the “decision” model, and this leaves me with almost no conceptual resources for understanding what “consensus” is. Admittedly, my experience comes out of my local (and small) occupation, and from attending the GAs at Chicago, which is one of the least organized and prepared occupations around from what I’ve read. But it seems quite clear to me that:
1) The VAST majority of the time at GAs is spent on general announcements (mere pointers to actual useful information) and process (explaining process, making sure we keep to process, etc). These are what I will call “Solidarity Rituals”, which I will explain below. But they have nothing to do with direct action of the sort modeled on individual decisions.
2) Of the issues and proposals that actually come up for consensus at GAs, there are two broad types:
a) Someone asks “Hey I want to do this thing (start a library or a compost heap or distribute a leaflet or whatever), and I’d like the permission or endorsement of the GA”
b) Large-scale framing issues (lists of demands or grievances or official declarations, how to engage with the press/politicians/police, etc).
Of type (2a), there are the sorts of proposals that are no brainers: if you want to start a community compost heap, just fucking do it. Such a thing only gets accomplished if there are people willing and eager to work on the project, and if you can get those people to do it, then just fucking do it. I don’t see any reason (other than making the announcement, getting a temp check, and general Solidarity Ritual functions) for bringing up such proposals to the GA in the hopes of reaching consensus.
Then there are more controversial types of (2a) proposals that have implications for the entire assembly. For instance, at Saturday’s GA in Chicago, it was proposed that we have a collective Halloween action at Rahm’s private house after dark. This was controversial because of the possible public/media perception, and because of the possibility of police involvement, both of which affects the occupation as a whole.
Such issues tend to devolve into proposals of type (2b), and get mired in sweeping theoretical debates about the nature of the movement, what is good and bad about it, etc. I think such issues are incredibly difficult to work out at assembly, but I think that they are also the right sort of things to be brought before assembly for general discussion because they have consequences for everyone. So I don’t object to type (2b) proposals; if GAs serve any function at all, it is to work out the grand narrative and ideological basis for the movement. I just think it would be helpful if people were prepared to have some of these discussions, and I think the theoretical underpinning of a lot of this process and movement are sorely underdeveloped, which makes listening to these public discussions incredibly frustrating. But you can’t work out a theory or lecture at the GA; those discussions have to take place between individuals outside of the process of Assembly, on the corner and on message boards and the like.
But whether or not type (2b) proposals reach consensus, the actions proposed at Assembly will or will not be taken by dedicated individuals, often whether or not the action will be endorsed by assembly. Some people will be going to Rahm’s house tonight, I’m sure of it, whether or not it reached consensus at Assembly, just like people gathered at the Thompson Center a few nights ago, without it ever being brought up at Assembly.
So Assembly doesn’t stop actions from happening, and they don’t make actions happen. That can only be done by an individual. So I’m left wondering what the point of consensus actually is.
Here’s what I think is the only real point of Assembly and the process: it is a Solidarity Ritual used to make sure everyone is on the same page, and that there is a general sense that people are acting in cooperation and for the sake of the whole collective. It ensures that the Assembly is unified and coherent, instead of pulling at the ends and disorganized.
Here’s another Solidarity Ritual: drum circles. Drumming makes everyone feel synced up, united, on the same page. It feeds a deep psychological need for community and unification. General Assembly, likewise, serves solely to satisfy this psychological need, independent and regardless of whether the satisfaction of this need actually results in any productive action or benefits the collective.
To put it simply, General Assembly is there to make us Feel Good, and that’s really it. This, I claim, has absolutely no relationship to the supposedly “rational” process of decision-making that serves as the traditional analog of consensus.
Of course that doesn’t mean it is a bad thing. Feeling good is important; feeling engaged in a community is even more important still, and the process of inclusiveness and all the hand signals and stuff reinforce that good feeling and makes sure that the perception of engagement is available to all comers. But good feelings don’t get anything done except attract numbers. Attracting numbers is incredibly important, mind you, but it shouldn’t be confused with democratic success.
For anything to actually get done, you need people willing to take action, and charismatic enough to attract enough people to help realize the action. That’s all I see in Chicago: I see a handful (maybe 30) extremely dedicated, talented, and smart people who are wildly successful with crowd-control and that’s about it. They aren’t leaders, but they are the Organizers, and it doesn’t take much to recognize who they are and see the kind of power their wield. They are raised on Internet. They know how to mobilize otherwise aimless crowds of people to do their bidding: to take a park or march down a street. These people excel at using People’s Mic to shut down provocateurs and other dangerous situations. These people are capable of giving a stirring speech that rouses passions and results in collective action.
Most of the time, these organizers are taking action that was never discussed at Assembly, or anywhere else for that matter, but was a spur of the moment snap decision by an individual in response to an immediate situation that requires collective action. That doesn’t make the organizer a “leader” in the sense that the person alone embodies or represents the actions of the collective, but it does mean that the person has a lot of power over what the crowd does.
Most of the time, these people are acting in the spirit of cooperation, and with goals that would probably align with consensus of the Assembly, had it ever come up for vote. Maybe. But what matters when actions get taken is not what Assembly thinks is good, but what the individual agent thinks is good, and there is absolutely no mechanism except radical trust to ensure these stay aligned.
Most of the time, unfortunately, the Organizers who recognize and understand the extent of their power over the crowd think they need to use this power to engage the powers of the Existing Order of Things. The organizers use their power to “put on a Good Show for the press” or to “put pressure on a politician” or to “overwhelm the police”. Such organizers don’t realize that the power of the people is not enough to stand up to the existing institutions of power, and that fighting a game where they have home-court advantage is always a losing proposition. They don’t recognize, at least in Chicago, that the power of the people is self-serving, and should be put into providing for the people, and that any energy used to throw dirt clods at the existing system is a waste of energy.
Training people on the process of Assembly, showing them people’s mic and the rest of it, is important beyond the good feelings it instills. It makes sure that the people are malleable and primed for puppet-mastery when needed. It shows, above all, discipline, which is a word that you won’t see much used to describe these protests but is nevertheless the most appropriate description of the Occupations. “Discipline” comes from the Latin “discere” which means “to learn”. A ‘disciple’ is one who has learned a method, and has come under the control of its instruction.
These occupations are massive exercises in crowd-sourced discipline. Its participants are eager to learn, and are eager to talk about events at other occupations, and of resistance movements from the past. They are forming a tradition that is not disconnected from the past, but is attempting to harness its best aspects into an amalgam of techniques and tools to keep the power they’ve generated going for the indefinite future. They are engaged in rituals designed explicitly to pacify and unify the movement, to keep it nonviolent and free of internal dissent, to ensure that we are better off working together than against each other.
As I said in the OP, this is the creation of a Church of Dissent. Churches are always created through impressive efforts of discipline and control, and these Occupations, if successful, will be one of the most surprising feats of human discipline ever achieved. From my perspective, People’s Mic is a form of free-style prayer: an intonation of words that get us on the same page and have us collectively thinking the same thoughts, which is exactly the traditional function of prayer. Retraining people on a secularized version of prayer-based crowd control is important if only to break the mind control of modern capitalist media and politics. But none of this is about “democracy” or “the will of the people” in the abstract ideal sense that appears on the signs of the protesters.
This is about turning individual minds over to the hive mind, and trusting that the hive mind to work in the interest of the individuals collectively considered. Part of that means being ready to be influenced by your neighbor, should you judge their recommendation to be in the collective interest, and you’ve already been psychologically primed to err on the side of cooperation, so it won’t take much to make you act as part of the collective. Part of this means that some people (not everyone) needs to have some lust and skill for control and power, and to take advantage of the opportunity to be surrounded by a bunch of malleable people to use that potential energy for the benefit of all.
I think this scares a lot of people. Hieronymous Alloy has been openly and lucidly skeptical of this strategy for several dozen pages of this thread; others have a more knee-jerk reaction, but in either case the concerns are justified. I myself have some reservations about the process going on here, but I don’t think I (or anyone else, for that matter) understands the theory well enough to come down definitively one way or the other, and since this is an unprecedented set of events, I’m personally inclined to watch them play out.
But to close I’ll say a few things in favor of “trusting the hive-mind” and “twiddling the hind-brain” or however you want to think about the zealotry of religious fervor at play in these occupations.
First, regarding the problems with being “easily influenced”: After three weeks now of near continuous occupation, I’ve seen a lot of stupid ideas shot down, and a lot of good ideas get taken on by the collective. I’ve seen people, even very stubborn and incorrigible people, change their mind and change their views in the spirit of cooperation. The influence at work here is by no means easy, even outside the formal process of Assembly. But there is influence and power at work in the occupations that don’t function along the lines of traditional social organization, and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. I’m not arguing that the crowd-sourced method will always result in the best decisions; obviously it doesn’t, especially in the short term. However, I do have some amount of trust that people can actually act in the spirit of cooperation, and to at least some extent put their egos aside and work together. I also think that the open, inclusive nature of the process, while not entirely a “democratic ideal” (whatever that means), does empower people to think directly about what is in the interest of the collective, and to speak out when something goes against the collective good (even if it doesn’t jive with their personal moral sense).
In other words, my point is that I don’t think “easily influenced” is another way of saying that the individuals don’t have any autonomous moral sense or feeling of responsibility or obligation. I don’t think that being “easily influenced” means that the individual’s ethical sense gets turned off, or gets put under the control of another individual. Instead, the individual’s ethical sense gets tuned into the good of the collective, and not the self-interest of the individual, and that’s exactly how a community is able to function as a collective agent. That might scare you if you are a libertarian- (or Randian-) leaning type who values personal autonomy and self-interest over all else, but hopefully the people interested in this occupation aren’t that anti-social. So while the process might result in the loss of some individual agency, I’m less that reluctant to give it up for the sake of the collective good.
Second, with respect to those individuals who do the influencing: As long as these people are never given any formal authority, and have to rely only on their charisma and ideas to generate action, then I think the power and wisdom of a participatory and engaged crowd is enough to keep the organizers and influencers in check and within some acceptable social ranges. That is, absent some formal position of power, the chances of some truly malevolent charismatic genius harnessing the existing system for nefarious ends is fairly unlikely. As long as the system stays open, leaderless, and committed to inclusive direct democracy, it is really hard for a seriously bad idea to stick around unopposed for any significant length of time.
At least, over the long run. In a moment of confused panic, even good and smart people are easily swayed for all sorts of nefarious ends, and you might have some instances of terrible evil occurring as a result. But assuming we’ll always have the chance to reassemble and take stock, I don’t see any such individual derailing the occupation.