Occupy & Democratic decision making - consensus v majority - SWP v ODS

Like I suspect many other Anarchist Writers readers I've been playing a part in the Occupy X movement. I've visited the camps in Cork & London (and published photos of both, see end of this post for images from Dublin) and I've been active from time to time in the General Assembly of the Dublin Camp at Occupy Dame Street. I also did a workshop on activist journalism at Occupy Dame Street about 10 days back.

Now I don't pretend to understand where the Occupy movement is headed but its clear something important is happening here. Newsnight economist (and ex Workers Power member) Paul Mason points out that in the 30's the crash resulted in the emergence of nationalist movements arguing for protectionism & worse, leading to WWII. The Occupy movement that now exists in more than 1100 cities across the globe is a very much more positive thing even if there are all sort of contradictions within it, including the presence of various nationalist and conspiracy driven groups.

Most (perhaps all but I can't pretend to have checked) Occupies have very regular, open to all, decision making assemblies, Last week Dublin shifted from having two of these a day to one a day. With so many different agenda's within the Occupy movement this opens up the possibility of groups secretly organising to pack a particular assembly to push fundamental changes through. The widespread adoption of a requirement for consensus or ultra super majority votes is the way most Occupies have protected themselves against that sort of possibility,

Many people at Occupy Dame Street think that there have survived two attempts to pack assemblies by the Socialist Workers Party. How real that perception is can be debated, SWP members present on both occasions insist that is not what they were doing. Others point to the fact that they turned up in larger numbers and brought people along who had not been seen before on the nights they had got transformative resolutions onto the agenda. I'm not going to push my own opinion here, it has been fought over already in 1000's of comments on Facebook threads. But if you want to get a general impression of what had people worred have a look at Dave Donnellan's video of the second of these assemblies.

Dave describes the video as "At this assembly on the 28 Oct a proposal was made to enter into an alliance with the Enough is Enough campaign which is working against the austerity measures of the Irish Government. The government measures have hit grassroots groups particularly hard. Concerns were expressed though by members of Occupy Dame Street that Enough is Enough was a 'front' for the Socialist Workers Party an active political party in the Dublin region. These claims were rejected by the Enough is Enough campaign. The video shows some of the exchanges during the meeting."


Occupy Dame Street: Day Twenty-One from Dave Donnellan on Vimeo.


I was at the assembly (that's me proposing a compromise amendment near the 11 minutes mark) but I stayed out of the huge Facebook row that followed for a few days until I eventually got annoyed with the SWP trying to label the block on their proposal for a joint demonstration as simply undemocratic. I'm no fan of compulsory consensus but it is a form of democratic decision making and in some circumstances it is useful.

That is the main subject of this blog and below I reproduce some of the points I made in these Facebook discussions but first an aside. The other thing that struck me in the aftermath of the defeat of the proposal was how badly the SWP dealt with being knocked back on both occasions. Far from going away and working out why their proposal and method of putting it resulted in such a hostile reaction SWP member after member threw a huge tantrum on their Facebook profiles. They also deluged the wall of Occupy Dame Street with posts which all too often misrepresented the debate that had happened and tried to smear their opponents.

These reactions were more interesting in many ways than the original debate. It looked a lot like 'oppose us and you will be punished through slander' bullying although I think it may simply have been crazy anger and a failure to understand the process at work. Either way it was hardly 'how to win friends and influence people' as the most obvious impact was that the few core ODS people who had negotiated the joint demonstration with SWP/Enough rapidly backed away from them over the following days. One to an extent that at the demonstration the following day he was shouting at the SWP members who had brought the Enough banner on the ODS demonstration. This wouldn't have been so bad but it tended to damage the wider political points the SWP were pushing on each occasion, points where at least in broad terms I'd have a similar opinion.

But back to the issue of democratic decisions making, consensus and majority voting. I broke my silence on Facebook writing on my profile
"4 days into the SWP v ODS row the thought just crossed my mind that while it was possible for 8-10 SWPers to attend the ODS decision making assembly no such mechanism exists by which ODSers could attend whatever decision making process Enough uses. I see problems with compulsory consensus but all the same ODS at least has a reasonably transparent and accessible decision making process open to all. In fact give it moments thought and you realise if your going to have a decision making process that allows new people to turn up and propose fundamental changes 14 times a week you probably have to have a mechanism to block cynical takeover bids. Or Orga FF could quitely mobilise to march in and use the GA to dissolve the camp some lunchtime."

this triggered a 34 comment debate, some of my follow up points were
"I tend to think you need a process where a serious attempt is made to reach consensus but where the ability of a minority to block is eroded when it becomes clear that the arguments are exhausted. Occupy Oakland I note has a 90% majority requirement and reached that in order to put out the call for the Oakland General strike on Nov. 2nd."

[Reply to SWP member 1] "that rather ignores my original point (where is the comparable democratic process to walk into an Enough meeting and transform it) plus the point I make about Occupy Oakland reaching the General Strike decision despite having the very 10% requirement that quote speaks of above. And actually I saw consensus process being used at the Prague summit in 2000 to make a very difficult decision. ODS clearly has a 'discourse' in the way that Enough does not, the very fact it enable such a 'discourse' is why this discussion has been going on for 4 days."

"Actually now that I think of it the Grassroots Gathering used consensus decision making pretty much all of the time and managed to come to all sorts of difficult decisions around the Shannon direct actions and the Mayday 2004 EU Summit protests. I think there was a sense there though that if came down to only 1 or 2 people blocking it would have gone to a vote so that meant people did seek out compromise rather than sticking to rigid positions in the confidence they could block."

"…On the general issue of compulsory consensus in all cases I'd be a 'known critic' so I don't feel the need to get into that general argument in order to point out the rather hollow nature of SWP rhetoric about democracy in this instance. I might expand in a more general way via a blog post tomorrow if the spirit moves me!"

"Well I think there are very people who wouldn't see [consensus] as having limitation but in itself this doesn't tell us very much as all forms of decision making have limitations - a 51% majority one may have more serious limitations in relation to something like ODS for the reasons I suggest above. I don't find dogmatic arguments for the use of any particular method in all possible cases as being very convincing, and that is just the mirror of insisting that a particular method can never be the most useful one. Thinking about it I think a system where the use of a block would result in the issue being forward to the next assembly where a block would require a significant percentage and result in turn in it going to a 3rd assembly with a straightforward 51% might be the best way of balancing out the different requirements in the particular case of ODS.

I note that my original question about where the similar decisions making structures exist in relation to Enough have gone unanswered by the SWPers on this thread and and the many more who have obviously read it. I'm really not sure a party that bans internal factions except for 6 weeks before conference and insists opposition candidates can only run as part of slate is in a strong position to complain about consensus being undemocratic!"

The debate was also ongoing on other profiles, some other points I made include
"Your [SWP member] suggestion that an assembly that happens every day and that can make any change it wishes to the nature of ODS is undemocratic because it makes these changes harder than a simply majority is only meaningful if you can show the same possibility exists for Enough and indeed the SWP itself. As we both know this is not the case, indeed the SWP uses a very much more restrictive system to prevent fundamental change that runs from the banning of factions outside of a narrow pre conference window, the use of a slate system for election and the restriction of the possibility of change to a once a year opportunity. If a minority group within the SWP tired something akin to last Friday's push they would be expelled - this has in fact happened several times in your history.

With these facts one can suggest that ODS is 352 times as democratic as the SWP on the frequency issue alone. A number I throw out somewhat in jest to illustrate how 'democracy' cannot be simply measure by adherence to one model of decision making over another. Rather its meaning is found in the answer to a number of questions and the balance between them - this will not always be the same for every possible situation."

"...Consensus decision making is designed to stop sudden 'turn up and change the direction of things' moments happening and instead turn such situations into an actual debate where people have to listen to each other and modify their proposals. So far from undermining support for consensus your actions in the aftermath of Friday have actually reenforced it (not necessarly a useful outcome) and at the same time substantially increased the level of paranoia and division (a very bad outcome).

BTW slate elections are fundamentally undemocratic in the way you use the word as they are also designed to make it also impossible to shift the status quo within an organisation. Your criticisms of such structures here is purely opportunist because you (wrongly) believe you'd have carried a vote last week. (I reckon you'd have lost it 40:60 for what's that worth). But in any case you accept mechanisms that make fundamental change difficult in principle."

Oddly enough that last point got deleted from the profile of the SWP member where that sections of the debate was happening.

I think I only spoke at 2 or 3 of the 8-12 assemblies I attended. I dislike the 'get noticed by making a rhetorical point' methodology a lot of left party activists feel compelled to do at these sort of gatherings (and I suspect they are rather counter productive). But more importantly I like to listen and try and understand where people are actually coming from, something that becomes difficult when you are engaged in the debate due to the natural tendency to focus the on what your about to say or the elements of what others say that appear to be in reaction to what you have said.

From the debate and observing the process I find I'm considerably more sympathic to consensus in this sort of context then I would have been at the start of ODS a month back. It seemed obvious that if the Enough/SWP proposal had carried that Friday that a large minority, including most of the campers, would have walked away from ODS. This would have left Enough/SWP with control of the #OccupyDameStreet brand but probably also an empty camp. In such cases consensus can protect a large but loose collection of individuals from bitter fragmentation at the first serious disagreement.

The downside of consensus, particularly in its purest form, is that if abused it can allow one or two individuals to try and constantly block a proposal for reasons of political or personal disagreement. This can be a barrier to a movement growing from its original nucleus. In reality this problem may not be that real as most often social pressure prevents people behaving in such a manner. ODS for instance inherited an opposition to Union banners from Real Democracy but this was overturned at the first point it made any difference, when the Dublin Council of Trade Unions passed a motion in solidarity with ODS.

At a wider level it is rather hard to know what the 'correct' decision making mechanisms are for this sort of movement. There are none that avoid all pitfalls, at the moment I lean towards thinking the large super majority system adopted by Occupy Oakland makes sense. That requires a majority of 90% or greater, as there larger assemblies have approached 3,000 this means the numbers required to block proposals are in the low 100's.

A final word on the difficult of decision making in large crowds and the dangers of trying to impose a single model regardless of circumstances (whether that be consensus or simple majority). I attended a meeting at the 2011 London Anarchist Bookfair on the Egyptian revolution given by three Egyptian anarchists. One of them, a woman, made the point that on the night of 25th February when Mubarak failed to resign as expected the crowd was so large that none of the decision making mechanisms that had used could work. In the end the question of what to do next was settled though a spontaneous process of chanting with the chants coming to settle on 'To the palace' and 'To the TV station' which was of course what happened. Democratic decision making it turns out can come in many forms!


These are largely photos I took at ODS in the first 3 weeks

Comments

Yes, Andrew, that's fine as

Yes, Andrew, that's fine as far as it goes, and there's room for a discussion about democratic procedure in the abstract but centrally in this context you have been making an argument for some kind of defence against people making a proposal out of the blue and then ramming it through at a single poorly attended meeting. And there are many ways to adequately deal with that problem which don't themselves bring bigger problems along with them. Consensus - as you know because if I recall correctly I've seen criticisms of it from you before - is a disastrous way of making decisions. It is undemocratic, inefficient, gives unchallengeable power to those involved from the start no matter how much a movement grows and it inevitably tends to push new decisions towards the blandest common denominator.

Deciding that consensus may be ok after all because one of its anti-democratic features thwarted a crass attempt at manipulation strikes me as a bad idea. A competent chair and a rule disallowing no-warning decision making would have had the same positive effect.

On a related point, pointing out the hypocrisy of SWP member's outrage about the anti-democratic use of consensus by reminding them that Enough has no pretence of democratic structures at all is quite amusing, and is fair enough when it comes to undermining their posturing, but really, in the greater scheme of things being more democratic than an SWP front isn't the standard we should be adopting.

Mark P

 Part of my point in this

 Part of my point in this post is that democracy is not a single concept (eg 51% vote) but rather a process in which different solutions apply in particular circumstances.  And in a situation like 7 weekly general assemblies int which anyone can walk in and vote you more or less have to have something other that 51% democracy.  Incidentally there is an old slogan which expresses that problem 'Democracy should not mean two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for lunch' but there are plenty of real world examples where we would not accept a majority being able to vote away the rights of a minority even if that minority were vanishingly small. Racism, sexism or homophobia for instance would not be acceptable simply because 51% vote for them.

Sorry, the first comment was

Sorry, the first comment was from me. I can't work out how to sign comments here. I think that the second comment sort of sums up the element of the original post that I found a bit problematic - the SWP are a pain in the balls, and have been behaving in a destructive manner, so any system that hinders them or any potential ally no matter how silly their politics is somehow good enough.

There has been plenty of vitriol and spite from people with a range of different politics during this squabble, with differing degrees of justification and provocation. The SWP aren't notably vitriolic and spiteful as a rule - their sins tend more to be excitability, high handedness, a fondness for kindergarten-Machiavellian manipulation, a nearly absolute inability to abide by inconvenient procedures etc.

Mark P

The SWP routinely resort to

The SWP routinely resort to personal attack. This is a standard response to not getting their own way. The Trotskyist tradition has always been vitriolic and spiteful, making their response part of their standard modus operandi.

Clearly there are issues with the kind individualist, anti-politics sentiment that many of the blocker were coming out with, but it's good to see that the SWP is being combated thoroughly.

I broadly agree with much of

I broadly agree with much of what you are saying, Andrew, and in particular this point has an unfortunate resonance: "This wouldn't have been so bad but it tended to damage the wider political points the SWP were pushing on each occasion, points where at least in broad terms I'd have a similar opinion." Their intervention has been so crass and aggressively manipulative that they have actually managed to not only damage themselves but to damage the work done by other people who would broadly agree with them on certain important issues.

I think, however, that you are giving too much ground to consensus in your post, on the kind of pragmatic basis that in this particular situation it has had some benefits. I disagree pretty vigorously on that. There are democratic ways of achieving the same "benefits" without importing the almost laughably undemocratic consequences of consensus decision making. For instance, a chair who knows what they are doing and an agenda which doesn't allow decision making with no warning.

  


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