Consensus, Autonomy, and the Outside

The General Strike and “Violence”

The general strike in Oakland on Nov. 2 was an overwhelming success. The port was successfully shut down for the night, by some accounts by up to 100,000 people, and certainly well into the tens of thousands (the police estimate of 3,000 is ridiculous). It was celebratory, and beautiful.

After checking the blabwire the next morning, however, it became pretty apparent that’s not the spin it got, both by the mainstream media and by a few other activists. Two other events were instead highlighted. First, there was some property destruction at various points (i.e. broken windows). Second, there was an attempted occupation of a vacant building at 520 16th street, to set up a free school and library. The response to this latter event is, unfortunately, becoming less surprising in Oakland: batons, rubber bullets, flashbangs, tear gas, and a seriously injured veteran.

This article provides a particularly good articulation both of the jubilation of the protest and the critique of some of the actions. When the author addresses the occupation of 520 16th street, he states that it is “a huge problem that yesterday’s day of action was undertaken in the name of the entire movement and embraced by it, while a small group of people have now changed that narrative by acting on their own counsel and excluding the rest of us from it.” I’ve yet to see anyone defend, without caveats, all of the actions of protesters on Nov. 2. Instead, some people are attacking these actions as being the tactically awful work of adolescent/drunk glory-seekers. Others are condemning in certain respects the use of property destruction as a tactic, but more strongly condemning the condemners, and mostly supporting the autonomous occupation of 520 16th street. Views range pretty widely over everything in between, however, with a strong number of people who both have concerns about the occupation of 520 16th street and concerns about the backlash against it on the part of other activists. (A sample of the less reactionary pieces, in addition to the above article: “Contextualizing Certain Actions that Took Place during the General Strike,” “Why do we riot? An open letter to my friends in the black bloc,” “Occupy’s Asshole Problem: Flashbacks from An Old Hippie,” the comments to this thread, and the latest Draft of a Nonviolence Resolution.)

In some ways, this is a story that has been building for thirteen years. The 1999 WTO protests were the first time after the splintering of the left during the 80s and 90s that divergent activist groups from all over the country were able to come together and take part in a single action. But shortly after the 1999 WTO protests, the media spin quickly became about the “peaceful” activists vs. the “violent” activists, with the latter universally characterized as anarchists, dressed in black, wearing masks, and hell bent on ruining an otherwise perfectly upstanding protest. This story erases the long discussions, controversy, mutual engagement, and eventual solidarity of all the very different groups that came together for the WTO action. The divides that were overcome to make the WTO shutdown happen were much, much more complex than the divide between those groups practicing property destruction and those who thought it wasn’t a good tactic. The “black bloc as violence” story also erases all the helpful ways that the black bloc has been confrontational. I remember that many of my friends, after returning from the WTO protest, were confused as to the way the black bloc had become stigmatized. Their experience of the black bloc was mostly that when the police started to escalate, the black bloc came in through the tear gas (many had gas masks) and offered medical assistance, got people to safe places, and reinforced the human blockades everyone was setting up throughout the city.

After 1999, well-meaning liberals, afraid that “their” movement was getting hijacked by this contingent, took it upon themselves to autonomously organize a “peace police,” to go around preventing the anarchists from doing anything that was “violent.” In the Nov. 2 general strike, this escalated to some protesters attacking black bloc’ers with chairs, etc. Although the “peace police” have always been an extreme minority, they are part of a strong trend within activism to accept the media-created distinction between “black bloc” and “movement,” and to see the black bloc as “hijacking”/”coopting”/etc. As if otherwise we would have beneficial media coverage.

As always, we must be open to seriously questioning the efficacy and desirability of certain tactics. But regardless of what we think about particular tactics, the division of the movement into a “black bloc” and a “peaceful” contingent limits the possible tactics to a predetermined list, and destroys relationships between people which could otherwise be productive. Even in it’s more sophisticated, less media-hype-driven form, the disavowal of one protesting group by another effectively creates an inside and an outside to the movement. One group’s role is legitimate dissent, the other group’s is illegitimate, nonrepresentative provocation. I hope it’s clear why I find this extremely problematic. Distinction of socially valid and invalid voices is inevitably accompanied by the distinction of socially valid and invalid peoples. Tactical discussions are absolutely essential, but they are discussions we have to have within the movement, not between the people who suppose they are part of the movement and the people who have been marginalized.

Consensus and Occupation

Most of this is old news. But with the overwhelming success of the general assembly model (see this for another take), the tenor of this discussion is changing. Now, rather than just exasperation that these people don’t “represent the movement,” we get both a legitimate feeling of disenfranchisement when supposedly autonomous actions occur (Lili Loofbourow tweets “it’s abt the claim 2 direct democracy while immensely important strategic decisions are being made w/o consensus”), as well as suggestions that maybe we should actually organize some response that prevents these elements from acting (like de-masking masked people), or at least issuing a formal statement, “as a movement,” that any tactic like this is not part of the Occupy Movement. In this way, the “peace” vs. “violence” debates illuminate unresolved issues that are at the very core of our movement: policing, representation, enfranchisement, and the relationship between autonomy and collectivity. The consensus process has been our answer to all of these for a while, but if its overwhelming success has made clear its potentials, it has also revealed its shortcomings.

Just as we should be wary of narratives of division within the movement, we should be equally wary about stories of unity. These are really just two ways of looking at the same thing: the creation of an artificially unified mainstream and a disenfranchised outside. Our rally should be solidarity, not unity, our physical togetherness, not our behavioral similarity. What has become clear from the application of consensus to occupations and general assemblies is that, in fact, consensus has always depended on the ingroup/outgroup distinction. A block (or “no” vote) means, effectively, if this group goes forward with this event, I will leave. And just as much, a consensed-on decision means: if you don’t go forward with this, you aren’t part of our group. To some degree (though only to some degree), the coercion of ingroup/outgroup makes sense for a movement that is well-bounded in space, time, and objective, like the shutdown of a particular governance meeting (WTO, IMF, World Bank, G8, Republican National Convention, etc). This constituted the vast majority of the actions during the 2000s. Now, the situation is completely different. Our goals and tactics go far beyond a specific time-based objective, and more importantly, we have gained the task of administering space, rather than just people.

If the Occupation at Davis is any indication of a larger trend, and rumors as well as internet chatter indicate that it is (this for example), this is probably the biggest issue within the movement. Firstly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between so-called “autonomous” and group actions. Our camp changes form constantly, changes are made that people disagree with, and people start feeling like they’re losing control of the movement. Secondly, when we are confronted with aggression or harassment that is threatening to our camp, we have to deal with it on the spot, via a peacekeeper (which I hope is completely different than “peace police,” although it would be difficult to codify that difference). All disciplinary action is the same: exile. In a way, consensus ideology implies a Lockean paradise: you freely choose to belong to a society, and if you don’t like it you leave. Consensus depends on an outside, then, in two respects: first, that each individual has the capacity to act autonomously outside the group, apart from the group, not affecting the group as a whole; second, that disunited elements can be merely ejected back into the already-existing society. This fictional outside is now being confronted for the fiction that it always was.

As much as we had hoped otherwise, consensus is not a miniature, liberated future developing independently of the state. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is, actually, a world outside of the movement, and until the movement becomes the dominant force in the world, it must exist in relation to that world. That is, it must exist dialectically: it must be apart from and nevertheless in relationship to that which it hopes to change. As a consciousness of reality, the outside should be preserved, because it’s there. But part of the process of change is exorcising the outside, including more and more of what used to be the system. And so we need to find a way to work structurally towards inclusiveness, while acknowledging that it is currently impossible for us to be universally inclusive.

When the consensus process is focused on discussion, it is extremely effective at being inclusive. No one can be prevented from speaking or making a proposal. But consensus has essentially nothing to say about what takes place outside of GAs. It assumes that discipline will never be necessary (and it should be noted that the different senses of the word “discipline” are related). It assumes that nobody needs to have a say if they can’t be physically present. And what is most important, it assumes that the space outside of the GA can be a space of complete autonomy without conflict. What the occupations are making clear is that discipline is necessary, many people want to find a way to be involved but cannot yet come to every GA, and the profound togetherness we experience within the GA does not magically become isolated autonomy as soon as we step outside of it.

The value of consensus is proven by the fact that it’s shortcomings have become clear: our expectations have been raised by our experiences of its immensely democratic power. But we must be open to modifications, additions, supplements which seriously alter its character. Ultimately, I have little faith in highly systematized notions of liberation. “Consensus” here is metonymic for a whole range of social behaviors, only a few of which are actually present in any formal description of consensus process. But the effect of consensus-as-metonomy is to obscure those social behaviors which have yet to be formally encoded into the consensus process. Rather than an ultimately doomed race to encode more and more of our social practice into highly systematized political structures—this race is an integral part of what we are trying to escape—we have to start giving equal priority to those things which happen outside of these structures, outside of consensus. That which is outside our overtly governmental process must be actively included in our sociality. This will require care, and work, and may eventually react back on the overtly political. We need to be open to this, and to let it happen when it will.

If the occupation movement teaches us only one thing, it is this: it is never to early to begin building the future. For the first time in many years, we have created a space that is set apart from capitalism, and aims to be permanent. This space is already often beautiful, but it provides us with more questions than answers. As Žižek recently wrote: “there is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions—not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want. What social organisation can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What organs, including those of control and repression? The 20th-century alternatives obviously did not work.”

“Consensus” is not the answer, and cannot be allowed to defer these questions.

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2 Responses to Consensus, Autonomy, and the Outside

  1. Ohnwentsya says:

    Thank you for writing this-I had not seen the violence vs nonviolence issue in this way before;you have given me a lot to think about. I would like to point out that in seeking answers to some of the questions you pose at the end, it would be good to note that the Haudenosaunee using the consensus process faced many of these same issues, and resolved them about a thousand years ago. The significant thing about the way they solved them is that the Great Law of Peace of the 6 Nations has survived into the present-meaning they solved them *well*. Those who resist decolonizing the movement may think it is only about making people of color and other “minorities” feel safe and comfortable, but in reality decolonizing means opening the movement up to thousands of years of experience doing what we are doing now, thousands of years of answers we don’t have to completely re-invent. Certainly the family/clan based nature of indigenous society is a huge difference from the atomized people now trying to use consensus to create a better society but even that difference gives us a clue to go on.

    I was also heartened by your post as a response to the Occupy’s Asshole Problem article. In the context of someone endangering others that article made a lot of sense. In our local group we had a disruption created by differing views, and those holding the dominant, or mainstream view felt the those with the minority view were agitators, troublemakers and disruptors of the process who were sidetracking from the “main goal of the movement”(which they defined as purely addressing the financial issues). The minority group were people trying to explain the role white privilege plays in the problems we are facing-not only overall, but in the context of increasing our membership and being inclusive and open to disadvantaged communities. The members who brought that up were told openly that they were “racists” against white people and would not be allowed to use such hate speech. When they became emotional and frustrated by this alienation and feeling of exclusion and not being heard, they were told they were violating process, disrupting the group and should leave. This happened on different occasions at workgroup meeting and GA, and then the discussion blew up online into a huge problem where multiple members who held the minority view and tried to defend it left the group upset and unhappy. Those still here feel alienated, unsure and afraid to speak up. Those with the other view feel shaken up, and like they need to guard against disruptors and agitators.

    In this context your reply makes a lot more sense. I think we have to find finer distinctions than “disruptive” for things such as differing viewpoints. Is it more disruptive to have a different viewpoint, or to silence one?

    My personal solution to our problem was that we need conflict resolution and listening skills, we need to work on the last part of the Madrid “Quick Guide” on empathy and starting out from a place of respect for one another, and we need to find less inflammatory language when we want to discuss difficult issues. Your post brought out a whole new perspective for me on the larger meaning of the experiences of my local Occupy group, a whole new level of things going on that I had not seen.

    I thought I had found a set of solutions to our problem, and I still have hope they can make our process work better if implemented-but your post has lessened my confidence that they will be implemented. It seems that after so many centuries of colonization people don’t even know how consensus is supposed to work-it isn’t about mob rule, or 1 person blocking and disrupting-it’s a process whereby a group of separate, divided, disagreeing individuals become one organism that thinks and analyzes together, as one. It is the process whereby an atomized population become a tribe without concern for blood. Consensus done right leaves no one out, done right the end result leaves everyone satisfied that it is the best decision they can make right now-maybe not just what each person wanted, but the best outcome they could create as a whole. Done right, consensus brings people closer, not drives them away.

    This article(plus the article it links to in the early part) and the Madrid “Quick Guide to Group Dynamics (which I don’t have a link for, unfortunately,) seem to me, to provide a way forward. I have to reread them to see if your questions are addressed as well. Thank you for a very thought provoking analysis-I hope you don’t mind if I post your link.

  2. Evan Buswell says:

    Thanks for your wonderful response. I’m glad you found this helpful, and I definitely appreciate any links.

    I’m *so* sorry to hear about people getting shut down at your occupy. This is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about: the consensus process can be used to silence dissent and shut down voices just as easily as it can be used to give people a participatory voice. Humanity is not something we can get from any process, but something we have to be constantly vigilant about. Without our human care, all processes are just empty shells. At Occupy Davis, we had an ad-hoc consensus working group, where we tried to alter the process a little in order to bring out more people’s voices. Part of that was to move to modified consensus (which most occupys are using now): we try for 100%, but if there’s a block, we have more discussion and try for 90%. This encourages the minority to speak up, when otherwise they might feel like they’re getting in the way of the group by asserting their opinion. Other occupys are trying to make sure that proposals are listed beforehand, so everyone has a chance to speak and vote (though that has problems as well—what if you need to make an urgent proposal?). In short, there’s lots of little pragmatic tweaks that can be made. Maybe if you try to bring up the question of people feeling like their voice is silenced without bringing up race then people will be more receptive? Obviously that’s erasing a very important factor, but hopefully it could be brought back in after the group becomes more open. Anyway, good luck with navigating these difficulties.

    I love this: “in reality decolonizing means opening the movement up to thousands of years of experience doing what we are doing now, thousands of years of answers we don’t have to completely re-invent.” Reminds me of Bejamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Overall, I’m very wary of the idea that utopian ideals actually existed ready-made in tribal societies. But saying “hey, let’s look over here and see if we can find something useful,” *that’s* something I can get behind.

    The link looks interesting, I’ll check it out soon.

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