Occupy: Learning from Climate Camp?

Until recently in the UK Climate Camp could, with some justification, have been called the most dynamic force in activism. Now that baton has passed to the anti-cuts movement, and specifically the Occupy movement.

There are lots of similarities between Climate Camp and Occupy.

  • Both have strong anti-capitalist leanings (it’s not true to say that to a (wo)man they’re all anti-capitalist)
  • Both have their primary tactic in the title
  • That tactic usually involves taking and holding a symbolic location and creating an autonomous and sustainable zone, however temporary
  • Those autonomous zones are one element of practicing alternative social structures. Other aspects often include using consensus decision-making and non-hierarchical organising, or at least attempting to
  • Both use direct action
  • They believe themselves to be useful entry points for newcomers to their particular form of activism
  • Their core support is the mainstream of activist culture in the UK – white, middle class and educated, although both might consider themselves at the radical end of that culture
  • They’re proactive with the media and have caught the attention of the mass media

Given the similarities it seems appropriate to have a conversation about lessons that Occupy groups could usefully learn from Climate Camp. Climate Camp had some undoubted successes, but slowly and inexorably self-destructed (or at least ground to a halt). So we’re going to have that conversation, and who better to have it with than you and Dwight Towers, a fierce critic of some of Climate Camp’s choices and culture, and an equally fierce proponent of effective movement building.

So lets start nice and broad and see where it gets us…. We’ll use the comments function to keep the conversation going over the next week or so, so bookmark the page, and more importantly join in. Over to you and Dwight.

QUESTION: What are the most important lessons that Occupy Groups can draw from the Climate Camp (here in the UK, or the many international Camps) or indeed similar movements?


12 thoughts on “Occupy: Learning from Climate Camp?

  1. Hi Rhizome,
    thanks for the opportunity to be involved in an important and useful discussion. I hope that the conversation generates more light than heat. (I promise to try to make that outcome happen). See end of post for usual disclaimers.

    If I could talk to my younger self (say beginning 2006), I would say the following.

    Remember always, that just because there’s lots of rhetoric flying around about how there are no leaders, and just because most people believe it most of the time, THAT DOESN’T MEAN THERE ARE NO LEADERS. The absence of a chair, secretary, formal structures and Roberts’ rules, can just mean power is hiding in plain view. It is absolutely crucial that meetings are “designed” (and the design is then impemented) to ensure that it isn’t just the same ten people talking throughout a meeting of 60 people. There ARE techniques that can be used to create confidence in people, to connect people who wouldn’t otherwise connect.

    It is crucial that there are ways of having “supporters” who can have “legitimate peripheral particaption”. (“Did you just swallow some sociology book?” my younger self would shoot back). If people who are busy, who cannot afford to get arrested, who do not want to come to long and chaotic and inconclusive meetings, do not have a way of their skills to be used for one or two or three hours a month on some sort of practical project, that has a chance of ‘succeeding’ (even on its own terms), they will NOT stick around. And so will develop the groupthink, and the burnout. If you cannot attract and keep “newbies” then your movement will not grow. Keeping them for three intense weeks does not count, btw.

    If you repeat the same tactic, the police will wise up, the media will get bored and the “supporters” will get bored. (Climate Camp seemed determined to keep holding big annual events, and that meant the time and energy and credibility wasn’t there for genuinely local stuff).

    Pay attention to the micropolitics of meetings and events. Do they, from 100 feet up, look like SWP meetings, with sage on the stage and audience as ego-fodder. I went to numerous climate camp meetings where there were 15 people in the room and 3 people did 70% of the talking, another 4 did 30% and the rest said not a word. And this was a group that hailed itself as participatory.

    And my younger self would say “Piss off, old man, this time it will be different.” Was it ever thus?

    (Usual disclaimers: I am not pretending to speak for a movement, and that my version and vision are partial in all senses, and that while the physical dust has settled, the emotional dust hasn’t, and it is difficult to know where to begin.)

    • Genuine space for participation and a genuine striving to organise without leaders. Lots to think about there.

      The Occupy movement is already coming in for some fierce criticism about these very same issues. Other criticism has been about the whole model of facilitated meetings which forms the basis of much of the movement’s organising. This is inevitably going to continue, and should continue. We’re dissenters and we should welcome such dissent and celebrate it!

      My younger self was part of the facilitation team that designed the group process for the G8 in 2005 (designed is rather grand – adapted from other mobilisations, more like) and carried forward that work to the first Climate Camp in 2006. By 2007 that group was consciously backing out and making way for a new generation of facilitators. There were some good reasons, and some less good ones. There was an awareness that we were risking forming a dependency on a small number of experienced facilitators. There was also a parallel awareness that we were risking being perceived as an elite that was holding on to power. I’d like to argue that that latter point wasn’t true, and that we genuinely understood facilitation to be about serving the group to a mandate that could be taken away at any time. But I’m not the best person to judge that! Given that it was intensive work, there were also a lot of personal sustainability issues and those provided an easy way out. The result? Process was handed over to less experienced folk and we could only offer limited support for all the reasons stated above.

      What’s this got to do with anything? I think I’m meandering around the topic of leadership vs leaders. I’m not one of those people who’s afraid to acknowledge that groups (and a movement is just a big group) need leadership. Does that have to come in the form of a small number of people? No. It’s a quality that can be shared \across the whole group, and can be fluid. Whoever steps into the role at any given moment is exerting leadership (thank you!). Putting on the kettle is a leadership role when the group’s thirsty and there’s only a limited time for a tea break. It’s only ‘leaders’ when there’s specific power attached that’s wielded unaccountably. The mandate we facilitators are supposed to work to is deliberately fragile. If we’re not useful to the group they can and should ditch us (firmly but gently, please). The same should go for any other leadership role.

      And the reality is that we’re working towards shared and accountable leadership. Because things start small, they inevitably start with leaders – everyone is filling a vital leadership role until teh group is big enough to water that down so it’s still all done but not concentrated into a few pairs of hands. How quickly they divest themselves of that ‘leader’ role is key. Part of the responsibility for that falls to the rest of the group, but by no means all.

      There needs to be
      *opportunity to get involved (preferably that doesn’t involve having to come to meetings)
      *support in ‘how to’ do the task, but not prescriptive (You must do it like this!) – let people innovate, learn from their creativity
      *supportive feedback to help people improve
      *enough time to do all of the above well – and time is something we’re reluctant to give to process (but not doing so leads to dysfunctional leadership, infighting, and loads of energy going into the conflict caused. A false economy. Get yer process sorted!

      But this is nothing new – we’ve both banged on about it in other blog posts.

      We activists are quite good at being passive and letting others do the work (and then sniping from the sidelines… which brings me to criticism. Criticism is a good thing. It’s a form of reflection and evaluation and that helps us grow and get better. It needs to be specific, it needs to be honest, it needs to balance the positive and the negative. If it’s to be heard it also needs to be presented in a way that’s not just going to set folk’s defences off. But we’re not very good at it and criticism and conflict are often closely intertwined.

      And conflict – seemed to me that one reason climate camp slowly imploded was because it couldn’t tolerate conflict. It hadn’t got the skills or attitudes necessary to either resolve conflict or to live with it where it wasn’t appropriate for it to be resolved. That’s pretty common, but it’s a problem. Difference will spark conflict. If we’re to be a diverse and welcoming movement we will encounter difference. How do we learn to find the creative energy in that conflict? To be comfortable with the discomfort of conflict, and even more tricky, to be able to do consensus in that environment?

      I’m rambling now. How do we do all of the above? Is it the right stuff to be doing? What’s missing? And more importantly, if criticisms of the very nature of facilitated meetings have any merit (and there must be some) are we going down a blind alley?

  2. Firstly addressing the issues raised in that post about facilitated meetings: I think their thing about everything devolving into anger and straw-mans was… well, a pretty big straw man. I think there are definitely some valid criticisms of facilitated meetings in practice, like transparency setting agendas for meetings, confusion about how consensus works not being addressed, etc. HOWEVER, I think that the problems he’s raised are about facilitated meetings been run badly, and not really issues *because* they’re facilitated. Often well-facilitated meetings are great venues for the “open discussion and free speech” mentioned – but I don’t think that *unfacilitated* meetings would be any better.

    I definitely agree with the point about leadership not being the same as having leaders. Part of the point of things like #occupy is to try and instil the values of leadership (like considering the needs of the whole group over your own personal desires, or taking initiative when needed) in everyone, right?

    Issues around hidden leadership, however, are probably the problem I identify with the most. People often throw around the phrase “there are no leaders here”, when it’s just patently not true. It’s true that the camp isn’t *structured* in a way to explicitly give certain people some kinda official authority, but that doesn’t mean a lot of the groups don’t have people that are mainly leading on getting stuff done. The issue, as has been raised here, is that this leadership is unaccountable – meaning both that there’s a lack of transparency and ability to challenge issues with unfair leadership, and also meaning “leaders” are feeling unappreciated and tend to burn out. However, one of the up-sides of having a pretty high turnover in a lot of the working groups means there have been few people gathering institutional knowledge in a way that would be a barrier to the group functioning without them (the obvious downside being that a lot of stuff has to be repeated day to day)

    (I should declare that I’ve been involved with the process groups at both camps. sorry, this comment wasn’t anywhere near as constructive as I thought it would be)

    • Thanks for joining the conversation and bringing your experience of both camps to the fray! And don’t apologise for your comment being less constructive than you’d intended. It may take us a while to get through the accumulated frustration at the problems of the process before we can start offering really positive suggestions. If you get there before Dwight or us, jump right in again, please. Meantime, all contri.butions welcome

      The issue, as has been raised here, is that this leadership is unaccountable – meaning both that there’s a lack of transparency and ability to challenge issues with unfair leadership, and also meaning “leaders” are feeling unappreciated and tend to burn out!

      I think this is an important point to recognise. The very same people who are being criticised for being on a power trip are often feeling massively overworked and under-supported. In principle they’d welcome others in to share the workload. The problem is that in practice they’re sometimes not great at giving that impression – what I call the curse of competence. You look like you’re doing a good job and people assume your happy doing it and don’t want help. Even if you ask for help, you’re sometimes not taken seriously because others are so used to you carrying so much of the weight of organising.

      Change needs to happen both ways. The “leaders” need to recognise the impression they give of being self-sufficient (and aloof) and the conclusions that leads other people to draw regarding power. Others need to hold open the possibility that they’re not intentionally power-tripping and be willing to look for other motivation, let them know supportively how they come across, and assiste them in devolving leadership roles to the wider group. Unless this happens really close to the start of a project the dynamics tend to crystalise and set, leading to both sides feeling dissatisfied and a rift opening between the two. Once this rift has opened we tend to lack the conflict resolution skills to deal with it and it leads to alienation and people being driven out of the movement.

      And what about those giving the criticism (which is often powerful – being told you’re an unaccountable leader in non-hierarchical circles is not a mere slight. It’s a serious accusation)? The strength of the criticism says to me that the processes of the movement are letting them down in a big way. I suspect some of these folk have tried to engage and not had their voices heard. If that happens more than a couple of times in reasonably quick succession it’s no wonder that they might start thinking the process is geared to not hearing their voice and develop a pretty harsh critique of consensus and facilitation as tools for continued oppression. It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw, especially if you’re already from a identifiable margin of the movement and see the core organisers being from an identifiable mainstream therefore have a history of not being heard. And if you’ve been ‘burnt’ by groups all your life because of your gender, skin colour, sexuality, self-confidence or whatever, when you do try to be heard you may do so more tentatively or more aggressively than the norm. Unless a group is well tuned in to it’s dynamics and aware of issues of power and privilege either may well lead to you not being heard (yet again).

  3. HI Matthew, Hi Seta, and hi any lurkers wondering if they should say something…. (you should, IMHO!!!).

    I hope to get down to the St Pauls’ site soon (am not London-based). Would be good to see general assemblies in action etc.

    I want to just pick up on something in your post Seta (not because I am questioning your analysis – I strongly suspect it is spot on), in order to talk about its consequences…

    “However, one of the up-sides of having a pretty high turnover in a lot of the working groups means there have been few people gathering institutional knowledge in a way that would be a barrier to the group functioning without them (the obvious downside being that a lot of stuff has to be repeated day to day)”

    I wonder WHY there is high turnover? Sometimes it will be because people are new, very enthusiastic and over-commit. Other times it may be because people get tired of arriving at a decision only for it to be overturned the next day. This is where it comes – for me, as a full-time wage slave – back to this issue of “legitimate peripheral participation”. If I have to attend endless chaotic inconclusive meetings where a decision that is finally reached is then no longer operational the following day, then I am simply not going to stay involved…. I will vote with my feet, as so so many people did with Climate Camp.

    What are the solutions? I don’t know. I have suspicions, hints.

    • Some of the ways to solve that are pretty basic, I guess: having a log of what proposals were made and date, along with amendments and what the decisions were being a main one. Others would include lowering the barriers to participation e.g. with online commenting, ideas generation and discussion. I’ve been trying to find a tool for online discussion that is easy enough to use (e.g. no registration necessary, good moderation tools, simple layout and glow) that it will *actually* get used – any ideas you have would be appreciated.

      I think the phrase “curse of competence” is a great one. On the other point, I haven’t actually seen anyone criticise the process of Occupy London… though I’m sure it’ll happen sooner or later, as the predominantly white male make-up of the facilitating team means it’d be a ripe ground for it.

      • As well as sharing his concerns about turning people off the movement through poor meetings, I see the issue that Dwight raised about decisions being overturned being more about continuity and trust than keeping a log (though that certainly wouldn’t harm).

        Climate Camp took a decision to move meetings around the UK in order to make them accessible to people from across the UK. Laudable intention, but it did result in very different people turning out to each meeting, with maybe a ‘hard core’ making almost all meetings. Two results of this type of organising are that:
        *the ‘hard core’ are in danger of becoming an elite as they hold the oral history of the movement
        *people at one meeting may have very little awareness of why a certain decision was taken, and therefore very little commitment to it. It’s therefore easy for them to overturn the decision

        In good consensus process there would be a basic assumption that each meeting had taken the time and the care to consider all perspectives and that whatever decision was reached was therefore a strong one. If everyone felt that there would be less overturning of decisions, with all the resentment and chaos that can cause. In other words there would be a high level of trust. In reality what we often see is people assuming that unless they personally were at a meeting, any decisions taken are suspect. This even manifests in terms of small group work – there are folk who resist breaking down into small group discussion for this same reason – they can’t be in every group and therefore can’t exert as much control. And this despite the proven value of small groups in allowing more people to participate in greater depth.

        Fast turnover of people can lead to the same effect – a decision made last week doesn’t make sense to those meeting a couple of weeks later. The Occupy movement might do well to think about how to ensure some continuity of process without creating an elite of “keepers of the collective truth”.

        Of course I’m not saying that every decision should be chiseled in granite and never challenged or overturned. Consensus needs to be an intelligent and living process that responds to change of all kinds. However changing a decision too frequently, or for political reasons, is probably a sign that understanding of the fundamental values of consensus are lacking in a group and some work needs to be done.

    • So here’s an attempt to summarise where we’re up to so far. The point of this was to learn lessons from Climate Camp (and similar movements) for current movements like Occupy and other future movements. We’ve talked about:

      • designing meetings for real participation – not just widening the pool of speakers slightly, but including everyone, even those with very little time to give
      • having a transparent agenda setting process for meetings
      • meeting newcomers where they are at and ensuring that they can get involved at the level that works for them without fear of being branded as ‘lightweights’
      • being honest about leadership – making it a subject that’s OK to talk about, accepting that from time to time some people will take on leadership roles and that this is fine as long as they are accountable. If they’re accountable power still rests with the wider group and they are therefore doing leadership without being leaders
      • accountability needing to be supportive – people shouldn’t be above criticism, nor should they get defensive, but this only works in an atmosphere where it’s understood that criticism is there to help us all learn and strengthen the movement
      • accountability only being possible with good listening and an attempt at empathy
      • facilitators not being above all of this – they too need to be accountable to prevent facilitation becoming a powerful role. Groups need to negotiate clear mandates with facilitators and ensure it’s widely understood that the mandate can be revoked if a facilitator oversteps the mark

      When all of this is present the movement is exerting shared leadership and will suffer less burnout, less faction fighting and less energy-sapping recriminations. A movement of the kind described is in a much better position to trust its members leading to less need for overturning decisions, and to a stronger basis for consensus.

      Inevitably I will have missed some important points and nuances. My apologies for that. Plus there are some issues we’ve not even touched on yet – for example holding to the original vision (should we hold to it? should it be allowed to shift and be shaped by newcomers? is that vision an obstacle to diversity or a useful boundary to identify who the movement is for?). More on this later, probably on a new post!

  4. Was just ranting tonight about SMART goals – a topic discussed on rhizome and elsewhere at the end of last year, I think… It’s the smell of victory (so absent with climate change) that matters (Saul Alinsky was big on this, no).

    Even if the victories are partial and semi-illusory. (Me, personally, for reasons I don’t understand, am able to live with the absolute expectation that my efforts will be utterly futile and still yet make them. Why? Meh, I don’t know or care. The point is other people don’t seem to be built that way…

    • I’m with you on not needing victory to drive action, though I understand why some people do. I think it’s a process thing. If you’re into process then the journey (process) is where the good stuff happens, and the destination is less important.

      Where I have a problem with victory driven organisations is that they can and do consciously and deliberately overlook an injustice because they don’t feel they can win. Instead they look around for a more winnable option. Hmmm, not happy with that at all. Some really bad stuff gets to go unchallenged because we don’t think we can successfully challenge it. And it also denies us the possibility of winning the seemingly unwinnable (lowering the general level of inspiration in the process). I know people talk about ambitious realism – and that’s what SMART goals can foster. But sometimes you have to be ambitiously unrealistic because it’s the right thing to do if you want to look yourself in the mirror and because somewhere you believe in the capability of our species to really surprise ourselves and pull a crazy and unexpected victory out of the bag.

  5. Pingback: Occupy: learning from Climate Camp? Part 2 | rhizome: participation|activism|consensus

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