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Sunday, April 20 2014 @ 05:48 AM CDT

Who Needs Ends When We've got Such Bitchin' Means?

News ArchiveSubmitted by Andy Cornell:

The years since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have been an incredibly difficult time and context for radicals of any stripe to organize in. The situation has been that much more difficult for the global justice movement, emerging and picking up steam, as it did, little more than a year before 9-11. Since that time, the movement has been working—albeit slowly—to reconstitute itself and rearticulate its purpose. However, it has retained a focus on mass mobilizations, continuing to rely on direct action tactics despite their dwindling effectiveness. Unfortunately, instead of honestly assessing the diminishing returns wrought of this narrow focus, many global justice activists have incrementally lowered their goalpost, redefining success to match their modest accomplishments. Hence the ass whooping delivered by Miami’s finest in November 2003 became, in Starhawk’s words, “a dangerous victory.”

There certainly exists a place and a need for inter-movement pep-talks. And we should always acknowledge the successes along with the failures of actions while evaluating our efforts after the fact. But therein lies the problem. All too often, our movement has neglected to think critically about its shortcomings and the obstacles that it faces. Instead, no matter what the facts, victory is claimed and we charge ahead to the next big event.

A recent manifestation of this tendency is Robert Augman’s essay “Reflections on the Meaning of the RNC Protests.” The mainstream media missed the point of the actions, Augman says, by reporting only on turnout, number of arrests, and the effect the demonstrations might have on the election. Rather than the outcome—the success at preventing business as usual, the impact on public discourse—Augman argues that the process of organizing against the Republican National Convention was the most important part of the undertaking. Although protestors didn’t get close to implementing the direct action scenario they’d been hashing out for months, they did create a “mutualistic” environment, lending bicycles to out-of-towners and dishing up free food at banner making events. That the actions were a bit of dud is secondary in this schema. What really matters is the “democratic and participatory” nature of the meetings held prior to the week of protest.

Augman argues that the Battle of Seattle changed protest fundamentally, “it made participants and their forms of organizing values in themselves.” As he sees it, “The movement’s meaning lies within.” For it to change the world, “it has to make its internal qualities of radical democracy and mutual aid external.”

Augman, really, is giving voice to an understanding of the movement that is fairly widespread and seems to be gaining currency. In an article published shortly after the FTAA protests in Miami, David Solnit stated that decentralized decision-making is “not just the means to the change, but that is the change.” David Graeber sounds a similar note in his widely circulated article “The New Anarchists”: “Over the past decade, activists in North America have been putting enormous creative energy into reinventing their groups’ own internal processes, to create viable models of what functioning direct democracy could actually look like.” In fact, he claims, “this is a movement about reinventing democracy…It’s not lacking in ideology. These new forms of organization are its ideology.”

Looking at the movement this way at least helps to explain some things. As I was sitting through the fifth or sixth A31 spokescouncil meeting this summer, I began to wonder what was going on. The council was engaged in the same conversation about “scenario” it had been having for the last four meetings while plenty of key questions remained unresolved. People came back week after week, yet we didn’t move any closer to having a comprehensive tactical plan, much less a broader strategic vision for the direction of the movement. Eventually my affinity group and I formulated the theory that many people at those meetings weren't all that concerned about how successful the actions would be at disrupting the RNC or how they might be strategically useful in creating real policy change. Why? Because the real revolution was happening right there, on the dirty floor of a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where 75 people, nine tenths of them white and economically comfortable, were having "democratic" conversations. The revolution was the process itself-- assuming that every nuance of consensus procedure was followed, the facilitator ran through the “stack” in the correct order, and each participant used the correct hand gesture to indicate that she wanted to make a “direct response.” It didn't matter what the outcome was, as long as we were "reinventing democracy" in the process.

In the months following Seattle, global justice activists were overwhelmingly concerned with questions about whether ends justified means. Plenty of ink was spilled, for example, debating whether Black Bloc property destruction was warranted to stop the greater violence unleashed by global capital. Now it seems we’re in a different moment, and a new question is on the table: Do we really need ends at all, as long as we’ve got these totally bitchin’ means?

This is, admittedly, a harsh way of making a point. But the point is a fundamental one—namely, the ends do matter. The object of building social movements is to fight specific instances of injustice and create concrete institutional changes. Processes are important, but only if they are used to create movements that have a real transformative impact. Good process is necessary, but it’s not enough. This seems to get lost sometimes, especially among individuals who aren’t directly bearing the brunt of the forms of oppression or exploitation they are working against. Discussing the purpose behind the process forces us to ask once again, “What are the movement’s goals? What is it demanding?” These are questions that global justice activists have never been great at answering with much specificity. When asked these questions, the A31 spokescouncil didn’t get far beyond vaguely asserting the right to “free speech” and the need for “real democracy.” Unlike other sectors of the left organizing against the RNC, it never publicly issued any specific demands.

Beyond reasserting the importance of establishing goals and winning real victories, it also seems crucial to take a step back and ask ourselves whether these new “direct” and “inclusive” processes of organizing and decision-making are truly all they’re cracked up to be. How democratic and inclusive is this movement? Augman’s article speaks almost entirely about one segment of the demonstrators who amassed in New York to challenge the Republican agenda—the predominantly young, white, anti-authoritarian contingent of activists often referred to as the global justice movement. In general, global justice activists have not built the strongest of alliances with other sectors of the left—much less with broader communities at large—over the last half-decade. We’ve been continually criticized for remaining disconnected from, and exclusionary of, poor- and people-of-color-led efforts based in communities most affected by globalization and the war, for example. Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez’s article, “Where was the Color in Seattle?” was only the first and most famous of many to offer constructive criticism along these lines.

Is it conceivable that the fetishization of the consensus process (and related structures, such as spoksecouncils) has anything to do with this? Consensus is a useful decision making model that is helpful and beneficial in certain settings. Yet, its superiority over other methods of organizing and making decisions can’t be demonstrated solely in abstract terms--the process must be useful on the ground as well. We need to test it by asking concrete questions like: Does using this process allow for all the important decisions to be made? Does the process prevent certain individuals or groups from participating?

In fact, concerns such as these arose in the lead-up to the RNC protests. Organizers from community groups with substantial membership bases were concerned that spokespeople of six member affinity groups would have equal decision making power with spokespeople representing groups with hundreds of members. And while those attending spokescouncil meetings rehashed their plans time and again, other crucial issues got sidelined. Just one example: when the affinity group I am a part of encouraged the spokescouncil to officially endorse and support the Still We Rise march—an important effort undertaken by local community-based organizations—the spokescouncil balked. Did we have the power to make such an endorsement? Wouldn’t it be proper to decide if the group can endorse anything at all first? (Twinkle, Twinkle.) Since we’re all individuals and small groups, what name would go on the flier? Shouldn’t we focus on planning our action—that’s what we’re here for, right? Ultimately, the issue, which we saw as an important matter of solidarity and Movement building, got sidelined because there “wasn’t enough time” to come to a solid agreement.

None of this is to say that consensus is totally untenable and should be tossed out wholesale. The point is that its usefulness as a tool must be evaluated and refined as we go. It shouldn’t be embraced reflexively, nor should it serve as the qualifying mark of a truly radical organization. Indiscriminatingly trumpeting the importance of participatory decision making might bolster our resolve to keep struggling after a somewhat disappointing mobilization, but we would be better served in the end by thinking about ways to solve specific difficulties that arose during the course of the organizing process.

Consensus is one aspect of the movement culture that has proven alienating to activists of different backgrounds and people in communities we express an interest in working with. Other factors—diet, language, manners, accessibility, lack of childcare facilities, and general white and privileged cultural norms—have combined to add to the effect. When reflecting on a sense of mutualistic collective spirit, it is important to ask who feels welcome at such activist spaces. Sadly, the left remains significantly divided across race and class lines, even within the younger generation, and this was quite apparent throughout the RNC organizing process. Such divides are long standing and very difficult to overcome. No single activist space or project can be expected to solve them immediately. But for members of the predominantly white and middle class global justice movement to laud their own spaces and “experiments in non-capitalist relations” as the true “heart of the meaning of the protests” seems particularly short-sighted.

First, it should be noted that while the meaning—or more precisely, the importance—of the RNC protests might have lay in the ethos and the style of organizing for some global justice activists, the importance of the demonstrations was surely different for other groups that participated. Recruiting new members, building lasting coalitions, developing individuals’ organizing skills, garnering positive media attention, and demonstrating to elites that organizations’ specific demands have mass support, were key reasons many others participated. We would do well to listen to what they deemed successful, meaningful, and important about the mobilization.

Secondly, the focus on process obscures the need to spell out specific goals and strategy beyond rhetoric and sloganeering. Certain questions aren’t getting answered: What are global justice activists doing when there’s no mass mobilization on the horizon? What’s going on in the broader movement, and how does our work connect? Too often our conversations have focused on movement-building questions to the detriment of broad-based organizing concerns. We need to re-assess who our base of support is and clearly identify what we want, why we want that, who our opposition and allies are, and what the next steps are to get us moving towards more wins. In some ways it seems easier to repeatedly call for “direct democracy” than to make specific demands and dirty one’s hands in campaigns that seek reforms today in pursuit of revolution in the future. Mutualism and democratic decision making are part of our toolkit for making change, and they are important parts of the new world we envision and work hard to create. But they don’t form the totality of either. Its important not to confuse the process with the thing itself. People can’t eat direct democracy; good facilitation doesn’t cure HIV/AIDS.

Finally, while Graeber, Augman, and others celebrate the structures and techniques they see leading to more direct and participatory decision making, they seem to ignore who it is making those decisions. They don’t ask the fundamental question, “Who is at the table in these meetings and discussions?” Similarly, who is participating in these newly empowering spaces and benefiting from all the mutual aid? Many would argue that the biggest problem with the old democracy is that poor people and people of color lack the decision making power of other sectors of the population. Their demands for inclusion and self-determination have been systematically ignored. Sadly, from this perspective, the “new kind of democracy” being invented in the global justice movement today looks a lot like the old kind of democracy. It’s been five years since we won our big victory in Seattle. It’s about time we start to rethink both our means and our ends.


Thanks are due to the friends and who commented on earlier drafts of this article.

Andy Cornell is an activist and writer attending graduate school in New York City. He is a member of Living Room Affinity Group and GSOC-UAW Local 2110. Contact him at arc280@nyu.edu.
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Who Needs Ends When We've got Such Bitchin' Means? | 8 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
comment by anarchist
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, November 27 2004 @ 02:56 AM CST
Chuck0: \"I really don\'t understand the point of this article. Is the author blaming things on the democratic and anarchist processes being used by the various movements? Is he suggesting that we chuck anarchist methods and opt for hierarchical organizations?\"...

i don\'t think he\'s doing that at all chuck. he\'s just saying hat the way we conduct our meeting AIN\'T a revolutionary act no matter how we do it. the revolution comes from changing and challening institutions and power structures.

...\"It really sounds like rhetoric being spit back from the \"identity politics representation\" wing of the movements on the East Coast. There really isn\'t a good word to describe this tendency among East Coast activists and some West Coast activists. It seems like the folks involved in the anti-oppresion movement--which does good work in the form of workshops--are developing a new form of movement moralism based on identity politics.\"...

I can see where you\'re coming from with this feeling about this article, but i don\'t think it\'s accurate, becuase a lot of the folks involved in the back-patting about process are probably also involved in getting into line with the new noralism you mention. but overall, i agree with the sentiment about the trend within anarchists circles in general. it is pretty stupid.

...\"What specific problems do I have with this essay? For starters, the accusation that \"consensus\" is alienating to this vague \"people in communities we express an interest in working with\" is just vacuous. Which people? Leninists who don\'t like consensus? Black people? People in Williamsburg? Why is \"consensus\" a problem? After all, it\'s a process that has been used in communities for thousand of yearss. Can the author zero in on a specific problem with process that is alienating? How do you know that these ghoslty \"people in communities\" are alienated? Because some other anti-oppression activists told you so?\"...

I am actually put off by the consensus cult sometimes Chuck. the consensus model is a sort of instiutionalized, activist form of the informal networks of friends and community that already exist in many marginalized communtites in less cult-like ways. sometimes the fucking twinkles make me want to start shooting!!! couldn\'t you see how all these prescribed, ritualzed ways of acting in consensus meetings could be alienating to people not familiar or into it? if it was done in a less activisty way, more of just a discussion and informal networking/gathering session, i think just as much could get done and it wouldn\'t have to take the form of some weirdo west-coast woowoo bullshit. there aer tons of other ways to work off of consensus that aren\'t \"THE consensus model(tm)\".

....\"There are many problems with this shallow dismissal of consensus. While it\'s not the only process we should use, it is an important process that has enabled our movements to be more democratic and inclusive. People should also know that consensus is frequently attacked by sectarian leftist who prefer hierarchy and anti-democratic processes.\"...

i think you are thinking too much within activist circles chuck. i don\'t think the author is arguing for hierarchical methods of organizing at all, but perhaps more organic and less activisty ones, whether they be stalinist meetings or anarchist meetings. i think the author\'s dismissal of the activist \"consensus model\" isn\'t the same as a dismissal of the concept of consensus as a whole.

\"This is not to say that the style of our meetings shouldn\'t be changed. Yes, we need more childcare and we need to make other changes such as explaining consensus process to newcomers. But the state of the anti-capitalist movements is not related to how spokescouncil meetings are conducted. I have my own criticisms of these processes, but I know better than to make bigger generalizations.\"...

i think that spokescouncil meetings does have something to do with it just as much as anything else.

...\"People can\'t eat direct democracy and good facilitation won\'t cure AIDS, but groups that are based on these principles will be more democratic and effective on these issues. The post-Seattle movement is successful in part because of our process. Many writers covering the movement have pointed this out.\"...

again, consensus is fine, activisty cultishness needs to be sidelined.

...\"We
comment by Reverend Chuck0
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, November 27 2004 @ 11:27 AM CST
The American anarchist movement could do more to connect with more people, but I think we do it better right now than other leftist groups. I\'ve complained about punk lifestylism on my blog, but even that isn\'t a serious problem. More of us need to make an effort to connect with poor people--it\'s a failure of the will to act more than anything else.

I can understand your feelings about \"activist cultishness\" but again, consensus is not the cause of that. The behavior you complain about is limited to a minority of activist meetings. From my experience, most activists meetings use consensus more casually than at a spokescouncil meeting. Spokescouncil meetings have to have formalized methods of conducting the meeting. After all, you want to get some work accomplished and not let the meeting be taken hostage by every person who wants to ramble on some tangent.

Our process is revolutionary. We aren\'t going to accomplish our goals if we don\'t do our process right. As anarchists, we believe in putting our ideas into practice today, rather than \"after the revolution.\" The means are an important way in achieving our goals. The specifics of our process may be inefficient and annoying, but they can be improved and/or tolerated.
comment by galleani
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, November 27 2004 @ 12:50 AM CST
i think this article is dope. im white but my community isnt and I can relate to alot shit they are saying. anarchists around here have burned me out with all their infighting and placing a priority on \"process!!!\". im about to punch the next person who uses that word. although im guilty of it too, we need to focus on organizing that affects real people who relate to us, our fellow workers, neighbors, bus riders, students, and friends. anarchist collectives are lame, how about some real agarian or industrial collectives/unions/organizations? i dont see shit for a movement when we talk about long term strategy and horizontal power building.

nonetheless i love alot of people in this lack of a movement and if they got off the whole Anarchist Consensus we might be somewhere. uhhh that means DO SHIT THAT REGULAR PEOPLE CARE ABOUT!!!
comment by Reverend Chuck0
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, November 27 2004 @ 12:59 AM CST
I really don\'t understand the point of this article. Is the author blaming things on the democratic and anarchist processes being used by the various movements? Is he suggesting that we chuck anarchist methods and opt for hierarchical organizations? Normally I welcome movement critiques like this, but this essay just meanders without really saying anything. It really sounds like rhetoric being spit back from the \"identity politics representation\" wing of the movements on the East Coast. There really isn\'t a good word to describe this tendency among East Coast activists and some West Coast activists. It seems like the folks involved in the anti-oppresion movement--which does good work in the form of workshops--are developing a new form of movement moralism based on identity politics.

What specific problems do I have with this essay? For starters, the accusation that \"consensus\" is alienating to this vague \"people in communities we express an interest in working with\" is just vacuous. Which people? Leninists who don\'t like consensus? Black people? People in Williamsburg? Why is \"consensus\" a problem? After all, it\'s a process that has been used in communities for thousand of yearss. Can the author zero in on a specific problem with process that is alienating? How do you know that these ghoslty \"people in communities\" are alienated? Because some other anti-oppression activists told you so?

There are many problems with this shallow dismissal of consensus. While it\'s not the only process we should use, it is an important process that has enabled our movements to be more democratic and inclusive. People should also know that consensus is frequently attacked by sectarian leftist who prefer hierarchy and anti-democratic processes.

This is not to say that the style of our meetings shouldn\'t be changed. Yes, we need more childcare and we need to make other changes such as explaining consensus process to newcomers. But the state of the anti-capitalist movements is not related to how spokescouncil meetings are conducted. I have my own criticisms of these processes, but I know better than to make bigger generalizations.

People can\'t eat direct democracy and good facilitation won\'t cure AIDS, but groups that are based on these principles will be more democratic and effective on these issues. The post-Seattle movement is successful in part because of our process. Many writers covering the movement have pointed this out.

We
comment by Kate James
Authored by: Anonymous on Saturday, November 27 2004 @ 08:24 PM CST
Fucking awesome article.
comment by tasba
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, November 28 2004 @ 12:43 AM CST
I think what is not understood in this article is that the process is important and that when the time is right,the leader comes forth and the idea fits, the many leftist groups will work together to bring about change. There is a general consensus on what needs to be done. The problem is how the change can be made and how to continually mobilize enough concerned people to bring it about.
comment by ishi
Authored by: Anonymous on Sunday, November 28 2004 @ 12:44 PM CST

i somewhat skimmed this but in many ways i agree with the article.

he is talking about \'spectacular politics\' in which endless time is spent discussing \'tactics\' (do we break a window at the RNC office? etc.) and little or nothing about anything else. then, people spend years between actions talking about them the way other people sit arouynd and talk about the people they have f-ked or some sports event.

doug henwood calls this \'activistism\' in his left business observer. fetishizing a particular process.

also, there is a big tendency to \'count your chickens before they hatch\'. i guess if you define getting some press and getting some turnout as \'an egg over easy\' then they are. you protest, and go back to school, or work (graeber is a prof for example) , and call it a success. \' we are (at least nearly ) liberated---by the time i retuire i think the movement will be a total lberation\'. the movement chicken has hatched and been cooked. (some go back to kinkos copy or jail, others Yale, or decide to say develop a reality TV series: \'the abolition of work and the destruction of civilization\'. ) into the Labadie library archives.)

the consensus proecess last a week at best, so to many its bs. like taking a mushroom trip or something.
\'another world is possible.\'

also, its commonly fake. anything using consensus beyond the \'protest\' is discouraged.
(for example, try to talk to the grad student who wrote this about creating some nonauthoritarian alternative to grad school, and i bet he would say forget it. .

alot of groups operate by group think, which means they simply use consensus regarding actions. talk of anything is about as welcome as talking about sex in church. \'thats innapropriate\'.
any discussions not about the action or the \'movement\' or the bible will be shut down.
comment by Robert Augman
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, November 29 2004 @ 05:50 PM CST
Hello Infoshop news folks.
I\'m not on here often these days but felt the need to make a few comments since I\'m the one being made a strawman here.
You can check out my article at www.freesocietycollective.org
Two quick clarifications to clear the ground for the discussion:
1.) The examples Andy uses to write them off as exclusive are only some of the examples I gave in my article. He considers bike and food shares to be exclusive practices, but does not mention the legal and housing shares that I raised as other examples of a broad mutualistic spirit during the RNC demos.
If Andy\'s point is to address the exclusivity of mutualistic practices, that\'s a fine topic to take up. But let\'s do it accurately. We all want to improve on our activism. Maybe one could suggest a specific way to have this discussion, rather than straw-manning someone and being inaccurate about the facts on the ground.
2) Andy argues that I am not concerned with ends, but merely means. This is also innacurate. The last paragraph in my article speaks specifically about the inadequacy of mere means, and presses us to think about how to be more effective beyond our movements boundaries: \"The movement