Occupy Dame Street - the DCTU debate, when does a block become a veto?

Monday night saw the final in a series of Occupy Dame Street's GA's that focused on the proposal that ODS link up with the Dublin Council of Trade Unions. Unfortunately both proposals for some form of collective participation in the DCTU protest march of November 26th were vetoed by a small informal group who objected to working with the unions on what amounted to a range of ideological concerns.

 I say vetoed rather than blocked as it appeared to me at least that this group had pre determined that they were going to block these proposals and had no interest in seeking compromise. That factional & ideological approach isn't compatible with a consensus process and is why many consensus processes 'fail'. This is because once individuals start treating the process as a way of giving themselves a veto over things they don't like the process rapidly collapses as others start to copy that behavior. In such circumstances assemblies will either collapse as people walk away in disgust or will have to shift to systems of majority voting.

There were four proposals, two of which had some measure of collective support for the DCTU initiative

Proposal #1 read that "ODS participates in the march and: – in the planning process, makes sure that the march has some of the ODS characteristics (e.g. human mic, carnival atmosphere, family march etc.) AND/OR – that there is a separate ODS “contingent” in the march (reason for that being that participation in the march does not mean that ODS becomes a part of anything) AND/OR – there is input from ODS about the demands of the march"

This took up the vast majority of time spent debating the proposals with probably 20 or more people speaking (the minutes say 30) and some of those speaking more than once. For this assembly the 'Direct Reply' which enables people to skip the speaking que if they claim what they want to say is a 'direct response' to what is being said was dropped. This is almost always abused in any process and in any case doesn't strike me as very useful as it tends to focus on what was last said rather than the overall debate. But in this case the reason given for suspending it was the quite reasonable point that in this debate almost everything was a direct reply.

The debate (and the assemblies which have previously discussed the issue) was in itself mostly good and quite useful. That you have every evening on Dame street at 6pm a General Assembly where between 30 and 80 people gather to debate out attitudes to trade unions and the difference between the trade union leaders and their members. That sort of collective process of politicization is useful in its own right, almost (but not quite) regardless of outcome.

In terms of methodology there was still a bit of a problem with members of the old left 'intervening' in the traditional factional style that seeks to polarize a debate into hostile camps. In a 'winner takes all' 51% majority setting that can help a party make short term gains by browbeating would be opponents into changing sides or abstaining. But in a consensus based process its quite counter productive as it tends to solidify the determination of those opposed to your proposal and push them towards blocking.

I'm specifically referring to the 'which side are you on, those who are not for us are against us' style of points made at various points in the video. But that style was also in use by the other side of the debate, the informal group with ideological objections to working with unions, the old 'James Connolly would be rolling in his grave' being perhaps the most obvious example of such rhetorical methods.

In the video you'll see me suggest after the first proposal was vetoed that it would make most sense to take the proposals in the order of high co-operation to none rather than in the order as presented. That was because it was hard to see how anyone could reasonably block "Proposal#3 "People from ODS participate in the march but as individuals" but unless that was blocked the process would have stopped at that point preventing discussion of higher levels of co-operation. Which at least to me didn't make much sense. I suspect there is a much better way of dealing with what were in effect four counter proposals under consensus methods although off the top of my head I can't think of how to do it without say voting on which proposal people most want to discuss. Anyway answers in the comments section below if you have them,

After a bit of clarification my suggestion was accepted which meant we went onto Proposal #4 which read "ODS will have a march on Sat, 26th November, on its usual terms. This march will meet up with the DCTU march at some stage along the route, and then separate again before it reaches its final destination, the ODS contingent returning to Dame Street. Union marchers will be invited to Dame Street at the end of their march"

I supported this as a fairly standard way of dealing with a situation where you want to take part in an event but have concerns about who or how it is being organised, on the video you'll hear me referring to previous instances of this sort of solution. The wording was a bit unclear which meant there were some concern that it could be implemented in a way disruptive to the DCTU demonstration but I was working on the presumption that if this proposal was adopted then this would all be sorted out at another GA.

ODS - Assembly 14-11-11 from DCTV on Vimeo.

As you'll see from the video though both these initiatives were blocked by a group of about 8 people who for a mixture of ideological reasons (both right and left, many of them spoke in the debate so you can listen and form your own judgement) argued against any link up with 'the unions.' I'm calling this 'ideological' because if you listen to what is being said it's basically a set of assertions as to what unions are in all circumstances where the specifics of the situation with regards to DCTU and this demonstration are simply ignored. Several speakers raised the specifics, these are never replied to, simply over ridden with another set of ideological 'unions are no good' objections.  Which is not to say there are no useful points in there, its useful to pay attention to what people's actual fears were, most of them are from the left rather than the right.

A good few people (including myself) felt that using what in effect was really an ideological veto was an abuse of the consensus process but the end result was that ODS will not be playing a collective role in the DCTU march. The overall effect is quite demoralising and divisive, quite a number of people literally walked away when the second proposal above was vetoed. I left shortly afterwards, partly out of frustration but mostly because I was already 30 minutes late for a Shell to Sea editorial meeting I had to attend. I suspect give it 24 hours and people will have calmed down a little but it would be foolish to deny that the assembly process has been undermined at Dame Street because people's faith in it has been reduced.

Now those that hate consensus will seize on this sort of dysfunctional process as proof that it doesn't work. And they have a point, giving formal or informal ideological minorities a veto over future work is a disastrous idea. When this happens and if it continues to happen the only possibility is to shift to voting systems that at least requires larger minorities to block and that eventually moves to simple (51%) majority requirements. As I discuss in my earlier blog on the topic this will result in alienated minorities walking away but we have to recognize that although that is often a negative outcome having complete paralysis leading to alienated majorities walking away is considerably worse again.

A final and important point is that we need to separate out the Occupy movement from its local and current manifestation at Dame street and we need to separate out the ODS General Assembly from the physical camp. I say this because at this point it is quite possible that the camp or indeed ODS as a whole could disintegrate in the next couple of weeks as it finds itself marginalized by this use of a veto against working with DCTU. In that case its important to fall back on the bigger picture of over 1100 Occupy assemblies (many of which have their own problems) taking place all over the world. In that vast informal network there need not be much strength or resilience in any one assembly providing the broad mass of them continue to make progress, a situation which will allow those that fail at one time or another to be recreated as part of the ongoing process.

My own preference would be to see a much greater level of engagement from all those in Dublin that are following the Occupy movement from their PC's and have hopes in it. Yes the local manifestation is going to be a lot messier and also involve a fair bit of standing around in the cold of November and December nights. But the global spectacle of Occupy only exists because countless thousands have stepped outside their comfort bubbles and for quite a while now stayed outside of them. Its a vast and sprawling collective process that really does need you.


Full minutes of this assembly


Sorry, that comment should

Sorry, that comment should have said: " I read the article but not the comments." and should also have had my name, Diarmuid Breatnach.

Read the article but not the

Read the article but not the comments. The article was I think good and I think that was the debate which I attended for awhile. However, the context of SWP interference and their 'gazumping' attempt of an earlier ODS demonstration was not alluded to. It is definitely the case that some people there were vetoing stuff purely because the SWP proposed it but others may have had genuine ideological objections.
Personally, I can't stand that chaotic type of debate and I also don't agree with a decision-making forum where people can attend and influence the outcome without having to take any responsibility for decisions arrived at.
But then, I would not describe myself as an anarchist.

i disagree with the gist of

i disagree with the gist of this article, we all know that the problem here isn't a minority blocking motions, it's that the SWP are trying to control the movement through telekinesis

It's something to be guarded

It's something to be guarded against. The sections of the French Revolution eventually faltered because they were taken over by reactionaries. Before that, the popular assemblies of the sections had been the main engine driving the revolution forward. In the Ukraine in 1917, the Bolsheviks tried to use similar blocking mechanisms. Makhno's partisans just had them shot, but otherwise allowed complete freedom of speech and the press. I'm not suggesting that, of course, but sooner or later you come to a point where you have to deal with such disruptive elements, who have their own ideological agendas - whether of the Right or the Left. Personally, I don't think it would be any loss if they were excluded. The revolution, in my opinion, is more in the method of arriving at decisions than in the decisions themselves. The means are as important as the ends, and in some senses are the end.

Dear Exclude-or-Execute:

Dear Exclude-or-Execute: please publish your name so I can be on the lookout for you.

posting video and finger

posting video and finger pointing people was a great idea comrade. after the revolution swp will know who to send to siberia. lol

I've read this with interest,

I've read this with interest, Andrew and others. There seems to be an assumption that the only alternative to complete agreement is majority rule. There are in fact other decision making procedures that are designed to reach a position that is more of a compromise between divergent views than majority rule, but do not give veto power to anyone. One of the simplest and clearest is the Borda system, where several alternatives can put put simultaneously and ranked by each participant. Check out the Borda Institute faq page. I tried including the url but it was rejected by the spam filter.


I didn't bother going to the

I didn't bother going to the GA on this occasion, because it was quite clear from the two on the subject last week that a small group of people were determined to use the consensus system to veto the DCTU proposal no matter what was said. In fact, it was clear to me from slightly before the first GA last week, because three of those people said as much in conversation before the first discussion even started when I happened to be standing beside them waiting for an Occupy University meeting to start.

It's all very well going on about how this is not how the consensus system is supposed to work, and about how it can work if everyone is willing to listen and compromise and show good faith, but ultimately pretty much any system can work under those circumstances and in particular where there is no strong disagreement anyway. Where a decision making process actually matters is where there are strong disagreements and where people aren't willing to gloss over those differences or "stand aside", and the central distinctive element of consensus is that under those circumstances a small minority has a veto. That minority weren't abusing the system, the system is simply entirely undemocratic. There was a straightforward disagreement between a majority and a minority and the minority gets to rule.

Consensus leads to minority rule, to permanent unchallengeable decision making powers for the earliest movers no matter how much a movement grows, and where those problems are temporarily evaded to blandest common denominator decision making. It is an appalling system on every level, even before you notice that it also makes decision making almost ridiculously unwieldy and protracted (which is already a problem for assembly decision making and does not need to be aggravated by consensus foolishness). In a democratic system, this would have been briefly discussed once to put a full discussion on the agenda, then there would have been one full length discussion finishing with a vote. And the vote would have been to participate with a group identity, a speaker, etc , because that's what most participants want.

The actual discussion above was slightly less depressing than the two last week, at least in so far as a considerable number of clearly argued speeches were made for wider participation and pointing out the differences between the union membership and the bureaucratic leadership. The anti-participation speeches were, to be blunt about it, mostly self-regarding and incoherent, just as they were last week. Every time I hear someone trot out liberal individualist platitudes about coming as an individual and not needing organisations or collective identity or banners, I find it very difficult to listen further. In any movement you'll get people with incoherent or silly opinions. But in democratic movements they can't inflict the consequences of those opinions on everybody else unless they can win the vote, which they can rarely do.

Mark P

On the block-as-veto thing,

On the block-as-veto thing, what are your thoughts on this: on ODS's own website, it says: you use blocks because such and such a proposal 'violates the following fundamental principles of the group'.

Well, if a proposal violates the fundamental principles of the group, shouldn't those principles have been established and articulated -however loosely- somewhere in advance? Which fundamental principle expresses that there will be no involvement with other groups or other movements? Fundamental principles are not the sort of thing that you make up unilaterally whilst arguing against something simply because you don't like the look of it. So: if people don't refer to fundamental principles already established, surely their blocks ought not be treated as such. The problem here to my mind isn't so much with the consensus process of decision making, but with the fact that they don't seem to be using proper consensus decision making at all.



Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles