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Monday, November 21, 2011

Heed this old-timer

Mike Davis, a veteran of the anti-war protests of the 1960s and '70s, is now an English professor at U.C. Riverside. (I've spent many a happy hour in the UCR library. It's supposed to be haunted.) In this droll article, he offers tactical and organizational advice to the protesters. Much of what he says echoes points made in earlier Cannonfire posts.
Fifth, as we learned the hard way in the 1960s, consensual democracy is not identical to participatory democracy. For affinity groups and communes, consensus decision-making may work admirably, but for any large or long-term protest, some form of representative democracy is essential to allow the broadest and most equal participation. The devil, as always, is in the details: ensuring that any delegate can be recalled, formalizing rights of political minorities, guaranteeing affirmative representation, and so on.

I know it’s heretical to say so but good anarchists, who believe in grassroots self-government and concerted action, will find much of value in Roberts’ Rules of Order (simply a useful technology for organized discussion and decision-making).
By "consensual" I think he means "consensus." (All democracy is consensual.) And he's right. Alas, young rebels make this mistake repeatedly, generation after generation. Nothing short of a surgical operation can remove from the left-wing brain the delusional belief that "consensus" is the most egalitarian and inclusive form of democracy. In fact, consensus democracy is hideously elitist, for reasons explained earlier. (Here and here.)

I disagree with one point:
Seventh, building movements that are genuinely inclusive of unemployed and poor people requires infrastructures to provide for basic survival needs like food, shelter, and healthcare. To enable lives of struggle we must create sharing collectives and redistribute our own resources toward young frontline fighters.
Look, I love the idea of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. I may need such services myself soon. But a protest movement cannot be a charity, because running a charity is a full-time gig. Moreover, Davis' advice feeds right into libertarian do-it-yerself propaganda. The protesters should not have to house the truly needy; government should do that. (Even Ronald Reagan so admitted, using that very terminology.) The job of the protesters is to force the government to provide for the destitute.

Come to think of it, the afore-quoted reference to "grassroots governance" has a vaguely libertarian vibe which I dig not. Moreover, "anarchism" is a concept to be fought, not embraced: Libertarianism (the root cause of our current economic distress) is a form of anarchism. Wall Street anarchy made the CDO possible.

Although Mike is an English teacher at a good school, his writing kind of sucks. For example:
Third, protesters must subvert the media’s constant tendency toward metonymy -- the designation of the whole by a part, the group by an individual. (Consider how bizarre it is, for instance, that we have "Martin Luther King Day" rather than "Civil Rights Movement Day.") Spokespeople should regularly be rotated and when necessary, shot.
The "metonymy" observation is wise. But I wouldn't have made that crack about shooting spokespeople right after referring to King.

Some young activists might put their Bakunin, Lenin, or Slavoj Zizek temporarily aside and dust off a copy of FDR’s 1944 campaign platform: an Economic Bill of Rights.

It was a clarion call to social citizenship and a declaration of inalienable rights to employment, housing, healthcare, and a happy life -- about as far away from the timid concessionary Please-Just-Kill-Half-the-Jews politics of the Obama administration as might be envisioned.
The sentiment expressed here is right on the money. The OWS movement should become the FDR movement.

But that "Please-Just-Kill-Half-the-Jews" crack could lead to an unfortunate misreading. I know what Mike is trying to say here -- lord knows, Obama does seem to prefer concession to confrontation -- but there are dolts out there who will take this sentence as proof that Obama wants to kill Jews. If Mike had written "Please Kill Just Half the Jews," his intended meaning might have been a little clearer. English professors should know how dangerous a misplaced modifier can be.
Consensus democracy with jazz hands is kooky. The question isn't consensus or representation. Representation is always shit.

Keep delegates on a short leash
The example that should be taken up is that of striking shipyard workers in Gdansk in 1980. If there must be meetings between delegates and the enemy - and sometimes they are inevitable - then relay them live to the mass assembly. That reduces scope for delegates to turn themselves into 'representatives'. It makes stitch-ups harder. It restricts scope for the enemy. They hate it! And all those on our side know what's going on, when it's going on. The whole history of the last 100-150 years shows that the bosses love having officials to "represent" the people or the workers. Even the Nazis had some kind of labour unions.

Encourage minority actions
It's obvious that we need collective discipline of some kind. Democracy holds things back because it insists that the order must go: discussion, decision, action.

I've got no problem with the general assembly being the overall authority. That's great. But the culture should encourage actions by imaginative minorities. That way, the dynamic power is much greater. If some small group does something stupid, censure them at the general assembly afterwards. Make it clear: don't do that again. But don't insist that everybody who wants to do anything must get it okayed by the fucking general assembly first. That way lies the fucking madhouse!
Yeah. You don't want the words "general assembly" to have the same ominous sound that the phrase "Angkar" ("The Organization") had in Pol Pot's Cambodia.
I don't believe that representation is always shit. I think it is the best choice among many shitty choices. Churchill made a similar remark, though with less shit in it.

Seriously, I think that once we force a divorce of representative politics and money, everything else becomes possible.
Winston Churchill, the Tory war leader born at Blenheim Palace, tipped his top hat to parliamentary democracy in its near-universal suffrage form, which he regarded as an effective tool helping his class to stay in power.

The British imperial part of it, that is. He praised Mussolini.

He had no plans to ask the Germans or Arabs to vote on whether they wanted to be gassed or anthraxed.

He was deservedly despised by many working class people in Britain.
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