In praise of activism

I’ve been feeling a little guilty about recent posts on the Occupy movement. Not because I’ve said anything that on reflection I disagree with, but because I know that I’ve been offering a negative critique of both choice of tactics and the robustness of the actions so far without balancing it with a positive critique. So it’s good to read a positive assessment of activist organising from Chris Corrigan and be reminded that whilst, as a community of changemakers, we could undoubtedly do things much better, we’re pretty damn good at it most of the time. Whilst not Occupy-specific, in his post The activist model of action Chris makes an upbeat assessment of those working for change and shares some observations about how to organise most effectively:

When you are working for community change, there is often more at stake than working within organizational settings.  Leadership in organizations, especially commercial organizations tends to focus on efficiency, production and increasing revenues.  Within communities, change is often precipitated by the threat to lives or livelihoods, addressing violence or inequality and improving complex indicators of health and well-being.  Those needs have a way of focusing activist on doing things well, and people who don’t work in this world would do well to learn from those that do.

Starhawk has also been blogging from the Occupy frontline in the USA, and finding real power, energy and inspiration on the streets. Despite my reservations about the choice of tactics, like Climate Camp, Occupy protests are providing a focus and a way in to people who are just starting their activist journey.

I particularly appreciated Chris’s words on activist’s power and privilege, an issue that plagues parts of our movement, and is deservedly getting more attention nowadays than when I first got involved:

If you come to a change initiative with privilege (ie you have power within the system) the best thing you can do to enable change is to check in with your privilege and step out of the conversation to create space for new leaders and new forms of leadership to come forward.  Asserting your privilege closes space down.  Becoming an ally to change initiatives is a powerful and important way to support emerging solutions and to allow leadership to come from anywhere.  People with power and privilege can open lots of space if we get real about how our power works.

Are we overly occupied with occupation?

The Occupy movement is spreading. The Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s in London continues to make it into the news bulletins (even if a lot of the coverage isn’t about the real issues). And yet I feel dissatisfied.

I get the reasoning. The Arab Spring has galvanised people, created hope that systems can change for the better, left us in awe of what people power can achieve. And occupation of symbolic spaces was a key element there. No wonder that we’re inspired to do the same. I also get that there’s a powerful upside to the tactic. Starhawk’s blogging about her involvement with the movement in the USA. In a recent post for the Washington Post she says:

At its essence, the message of the Occupations is simply this:

“Here in the face of power we will sit and create a new society, in which you do count. Your voice carries weight, your contributions have value, whoever you may be. We care for one another, and we say that love and care are the true foundations for the society we want to live in. We’ll stand with the poor and sleep with the homeless if that’s what it takes to get justice. We’ll build a new world.”

And I don’t doubt any of that. I also recognise there are other positives.

What I do doubt is that the holy trinity of Strike: March: Occupy! is, in our context, what an occupation of Tahrir Square was in Egypt, and that it has the same revolutionary potential. What happened in Egypt and elsewhere was so much more powerful. In occupying space, making a public stand, activists there risked everything. I recently heard a snippet of a documentary in which an activist said that they went out on the streets expecting to never return. Arrest, torture, death.  The unholy trinity of the repressor. These were the likely outcomes of protest. These regimes could not tolerate such public shows of dissent. And that was the power of the movement. It forced the intolerable onto a regime. The regime had to respond and in doing so escalated the resistance and ultimately guaranteed its own demise. Of course it’s never clear-cut as to whether the resistance can take the increased repression for long enough to overthrow a regime, but there are enough case studies of nonviolent resistance to suggest it’s a distinct possibility.

Are we doing that here? Are we consciously choosing tactics that will force the system we protest about to show its hand? Is our action intolerable to the state, the financial system? I think not. And I think if we’re serious about revolution it needs to be. So occupy if that’s the appropriate tactic. But occupy spaces that genuinely stop the system functioning. Be creative in making it happen so that the police cannot repel us (more or less anything is possible to a well organised affinity group and there’s experience to support that). And escalate continuously. Don’t get stuck in a tactical rut. I’d call on folk to connect with the intention behind the Arab Spring, with the level of provocation and protest, and not the tactic used.

I’m not on the streets right now, so easy said. At least those in the tents are there in body as well as spirit.

Of course we don’t have a brutal dictator to depose. Our system is far more subtle and seductive (at least for now). Mother of all parliaments, NHS free at the point of delivery and so much more. But the repressions still there, and getting more obvious by the day. Our job is to bring it out into the sunlight. And we need to find tactics that do that most effectively. I’ll hand over to Martin Luther King Jnr to end:

“we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” Letter from Birmingham Jail

The Empowerment Manual

Whilst we’re plugging books, here’s news that Starhawk‘s latest book will be out soon. Once again she returns to look at group process in The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups. Starhawk’s previous work is required reading on consensus, and has been mentioned on this blog in that capacity, so expect good things.

She’s also put a bonus chapter of the book online for you to take a sneak peek: The Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings which you can download as a pdf.

We’ll be doing our reading and letting you know what we think.

When not to use consensus…

In her book Truth or Dare, Starhawk wrote some oft-quoted and wise words on When not to use consensus. They stand re-quoting, and I’ve had the cheek to add a few thoughts:

When there is no group in mind: A group thinking process cannot work effectively unless the group is cohesive enough to generate shared attitudes and perceptions. When deep divisions exist within a group’s bonding over their individual desires, consensus becomes and exercise in frustration.

When there are no good choices: Consensus process can help a group find the best possible solution to a problem, but it is not an effective way to make an either-or choice between evils, for members will never be able to agree which is worse. If the group has to choose between being shot and hung, flip a coin. When a group gets bogged down trying to make a decision, stop for a moment and consider: Are we blocked because we are given an intolerable situation? Are we being given the illusion, but not the reality, of choice? Might our most empowering act be to refuse to participate in this farce?

When they can see the whites of your eyes In emergencies, in situations where urgent and immediate action is necessary, appointing a temporary leader may be the wisest course of action.

When the issue is trivial: I have known groups to devote half and hour to trying to decide by consensus whether to spend forty minutes or a full hour at lunch. Remember consensus is a thinking process – where there is nothing to think about, flip a coin.

When the group has insufficient information: When you’re lost in the hills, and no one knows the way home, you cannot figure out how to get there by consensus. Send out scouts. Ask: Do we have the information we need to solve this problem? Can we get it?

Starhawk ‘Truth or Dare’. © Miriam Simos, published by Harper and Row

Of course you can appoint your leaders and decide to send out your scouts by consensus

I’d add:

When there’s no decision to take: Not because all the options are poor ones but because there’s genuinely no need for collective agreement on an issue. Let me illustrate with the example I’m thinking of, which I’ve seen a few times. A group of activists gather to plan and take action. Perhaps some have come as organised affinity groups. Perhaps others are there as individuals. They discuss tactics and identify potential targets and as the meeting progresses ideas emerge and energy gathers around them. There comes a stage where a range of ideas for action have been put forward and people need to decide what action they want to take, if any. But it’s not a collective decision, just a personal one – “where do I want to put my energy? what do I feel will be most effective.”

There’s a strange dynamic that can emerge in groups using consensus whereby they start to believe that full group sign-off is needed for everything. So when an affinity group states that they have an idea for action that they are planning to take forwards, and invites others to join in, there can be a response along the lines of “but we haven’t agreed we’re doing that particular action yet”. The action hasn’t been ‘authorised’ by the group. Hmmm – given that consensus enshrines autonomy (and the choice to pool our autonomy for greater effectiveness), this is a tad ironic.

Secondly and more seriously there’s a situation when a group isn’t willing or able to grow. I never thought I’d hear myself suggesting that grassroots groups shouldn’t use consensus (at least not yet), but here I am saying that very thing. Consensus is an aspirational process. We talk in terms of equality, challenging all oppression, including the margins of a group, building the best possible proposal for the group, and more. Visionary stuff. How many groups are genuinely capable of doing that all of the time or any of the time? Not many that I’ve encountered. So we’re constantly working towards consensus, ideally in a virtuous circle: the experience of our attempts at a consensual decision-making process helps us to deepen our mutual understanding and our common ground, making us more likely to reach consensus next time around.

And if we ever get there? Well then there’s a particularly controversial decision to be made, or we’re having an off day, or we have new members that have changed the dynamic of the group, and momentarily we’re  a step back, striving for consensus again.

Many groups use consensus as a process but struggle to grow the values of consensus within the group – competition, lack of empathy, distrust, intolerance of difference are rife and all make reaching consensus harder. This cycle is vicious not virtuous – distrust deepens, intolerance intensifies and before long you don’t so much have the conditions for consensus as for dysfunction. Of course this isn’t true of every individual within the group, but it can be the prevalent group dynamic.

Why is this different to “no group mind”? Because in many such groups there’s plenty of potential for group mind – shared values, a shared political analysis, shared aims or tactics – but the group is focused on difference and where they converge can seem smaller and weaker than where they diverge. Maybe they focus on difference and simultaneously fail to appreciate it as a strength, fail to respect other opinions or views, and fail to synthesise ways forward that engage the full group. At which point of course they’re no longer doing consensus. Maybe they focus on individual values over shared and agreed values. This is usually reflected in the process, which breaks down under a pressure of blocks. At a recent meeting of UK climate activists there was a stand-off of blocks and “anti-blocks”.

But where next for groups ideologically committed to anti-hierarchical methods of decision-making? There are alternatives to consensus which could be described as near-consensus techniques. I’ve never given them a lot of time, being a bit of a consensus purist. But recently I’ve begun to think that they might be better than consensus with no room for growth. If we claim to use consensus but don’t embody its values, wouldn’t it be more honest to accept that we don’t use consensus and choose a near-consensus alternative until we’ve cultivated the values we need? The danger is that, otherwise, we teach a generation of activists that consensus is a dysfunctional, painful and divisive process.

You might like to read:

Other posts in the series:

Previous posts on the steps of the consensus process: