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Process small-d democrats?

"Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real Liberty." --Roberts Rules of Order

Another important post from The Archdruid. It's all good, but this point on process caught my eye:

After months of circular debate that never quite managed to result in meaningful action, the vast majority of the [Occupy] protesters were convinced that their concerns would not be addressed and their efforts were wasted, and simply went home. This would be significant enough if it was new; in point of fact, it’s been the outcome of nearly every attempt at organized protest since the early 1980s, when the current suite of manipulative* pseudoconsensus methods were adopted across most of the activist Left. If you want to know why the Left accomplished next to nothing for thirty years, while activists on the right were getting candidates into office and laws on the books, that’s an important part of the reason.
This is all the more embarrassing in that the toolkit of democratic process has been sitting on the shelf the whole time, waiting for somebody to notice that liberal and radical groups in the past used to use methods of organization that, however unfashionable they have become, actually work.  There are a lot of details, and entire books in fine print have been written on the minutiae, but the core elements of democratic process can be described in a paragraph. 
This is how it works.  Everyone has an equal voice and an equal vote, but the right to participate depends on willingness to follow the rules, and members can be ejected for abusive behavior; the chairperson of the meeting, and the handful of other people needed to make it work, are elected to be impartial referees of the process, and can be overruled or removed by vote if they abuse their positions; one person speaks at a time, and the chairperson determines who speaks next; an overly longwinded speaker can be told to shut up by the chairperson, or by vote of the members; once a vote takes place on any issue, the issue can’t be brought back up for debate again without a 2/3 majority, to keep a minority with an agenda from holding the meeting hostage; and the goal of the meeting, and of every part of the process, is to come to a decision, act on it, and get home at a reasonable hour. 
That’s democratic process.  It evolved organically over many centuries from its origins in the rough but functional practices of Anglo-Saxon tribal assemblies, and like other organic systems, it looks much sloppier but works much better than the idealized abstractions cooked up by radicals on either end of the spectrum. It’s easy to compare it unfavorably to one or another of those idealized abstractions, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating; those who want to demonstrate that some other system is as effective as democratic process are welcome to use that other system on smaller scales, with voluntary organizations and local communities, and prove that it works. That was, after all, how democratic process emerged as the default option in the Western world: in actual practice, in an assortment of voluntary organizations, local communities, political parties and protest groups, it proved to be more effective than the alternatives.

As I remind people periodically, I'm a writer, not an organizer. So, from the Barcalounger: When we went to OccupyDC, I was very impressed by the ability of three or four people to bootstrap a crowd into a general assembly, using nothing other than their own voices. That said, the meeting was almost immediately disrupted, and it wasn't clear what the meeting accomplished other than bootstrapping itself (again, no mean feat). And in some ways that pre-figured the fate of Occupy in the coming year. Maybe, as the Archdruid points out, given the current baseline for dialectic and rhetoric in the general population, that's the best we can do: Keep bootstrapping , and... and...

The history of Roberts Rules of Order is a propos:

[Robert]'s interest in parliamentary procedure began in 1863 when he was chosen to preside over a church meeting and, although he accepted the task, felt that he did not have the necessary knowledge of proper procedure. In his later work as an active member of several organizations, he discovered that members from different areas of the country had very different views regarding what the proper parliamentary rules were, and these conflicting views hampered the organizations in their work. He eventually became convinced of the need for a new manual on the subject, one which would enable many organizations to adopt the same set of rules.

So, the social context for Roberts Rules is America's westward expansion (slaughtering as we went, I grant): That's how we ended up with a requirement for a lot of new organizations, all over the country, to adopt rules, and to adopt consistent rules, because geographical and social mobility meant that meetings would find it harder than they otherwise might to get themselves bootstrapped. Notice that Occupy faced an equivalent organization problems: A sudden or at least new requirement to organize meetings on a continental scale, in a context of geographical and social mobility. The 1860s solution was to write and distribute an operating manual or rule book. (This was the solution for AA in the 1930s as well.) The Occupy solution to bootstrapping, so far as I can tell -- readers with more experience please correct! -- was to rely on volunteers with practical knowledge to initiate the bootstrapping process; sometimes these volunteers were enthusiastic newbies; at other times, they came from other Occupations, in a form of apostolic succession. (I'm guessing that when the history of Occupy is written, Occupiers traveling between cities, by bus, bike, or on foot, will seem more important than they do today. [Adding: See this "Eulogy for Occupy"] The problem with Occupy's approach is two-fold: (1) It relies on the personal authority of whoever bootstrapped the meeting, and for myself, I'd rather have a rule book to refer to;** and (2) it doesn't, based on outcomes, scale continentally. As a result, Occupy seemed like a canopy fire that, paradoxically, never reached the ground and burned out prematurely.

As FDR said, "Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another." There's something to be said for using proven techniques that have worked for thousands of years. The Manual certainly seems to be a highly concentrated form of social capital and we might do well to adopt one such as a means of transmitting values and practices. Other posts at Corrente on Roberts Rules: Here***, here, and especially here.

NOTE * The writer doesn't explain what they mean by "manipulative," and it would be interesting to know. (It's worth noting that "power structure" and "the state" are not synonyms.)

NOTE ** Imagine baseball with umpires but no rulebook.

NOTE *** This reference is to the DNC's 2008 shenanigans. When you've got a rule book to look at, you know when you've been violated. Not so with looser structures.

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goldberry's picture
Submitted by goldberry on

No duh. 


I think is what I laid out back in September 2008. The document is still on my laptop somewhere.  Essentially, it is the school board organization and it works.  We also used Roberts rules, which I could never remember so someone was appointed to keep track of that stuff.  It was the school district's COO. I swear the guy was underpaid. He was amazing in his organizational skills. Anyway, this structure works because it can work as a whole and it is possible to delegate.  Public input is encouraged but manageable. All meetings are public except for personnel discussions and disciplinary meetings. I liked occupy for their infectious enthusiasm and moral authority.  And bravery.  But the GA didn't seem to be workable going forward. It's a bronze age technique born out of necessity.  Deat 

athena1's picture
Submitted by athena1 on

The Occupiers were violently evicted. They didn't just go home. And the act of reclaiming the commons was itself the intended meaningful action. Nobody expected their/our concerns to be addressed; that's why we never made any "demands". 



goldberry's picture
Submitted by goldberry on

Yes and no.  They were violently evicted and that was part of the point. But it is also true that what we need is organization and that is something occupy avoided on principle. The right will always beat us at this part because we refuse to organize and practice politics even on a small scale. And every army knows that even the smallest units need organization, leadership and goals or it doesn't stand a chance of winning. The GAs were not workable. I was there. They were good for fostering a sense of community and shared purpose and little else. It is to its credit that occupy has accomplished as much as it has. But it was never meant to succeed as an organization because it decided to adopt the people's mic and the Ga and couldn't get traction to do anything. It needs to evolve and mature. 

athena1's picture
Submitted by athena1 on

The GAs were not workable. I was there. They were good for fostering a sense of community and shared purpose and little else. 

Later in the game they lost purpose to some extent, but early on they were necessary for forming the working groups. That's where the real action happened. (cooking, cleaning, neoliberalism teach-ins, etc etc.) I get the impression that the author of the OP never even participated in Occupy in any meaningful way. It's offensive. What about Occupy Sandy, the Rolling Jubilee, the idea of the 99% now being ubiquitous, and thousands and thousands of hyperlocal initiatives all over the world, etc etc?


Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

Maybe, as the Archdruid points out, given the current baseline for dialectic and rhetoric in the general population, that's the best we can do:

I hate to sound Twenty-First Century-centric, but I can't imagine that education and rhetorical ability were any better in the Anglo-Saxon days. We can probably do better, the question is do enough of us want to?

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

I thought this post by the Archdruid was at best mediocre. He makes the sci fi assumption that if humans could just be logical, we could solve our problems. In fact, we will always have differences of values and desires. Logic is like a road map -- it can help you find out what places are available and guide you in getting to the one you want to go to. But it will not finally resolve differences between people who want to go different places. There is a reason human beings evolved with such heavy fealty to emotions: love, desire for belonging, anger, desire for respect, and the like. Those emotions help us form bonds, and any discussion about how we make decisions together that simply says teach dialectic and rhetoric is going to come up short.

A strong factor in our descent into the problematic political situation we have now is the development of the belief in technocratic leadership. The experts will always be able to produce more facts and logic than the non-experts. So when they have explained to you patiently and with lots of facts and charts that the toxic waste facility should logically go beside you and the great new park should logically go in the high-income area, you're told that you are just unable to think. Why, oh why, are the sheeple so stupid? Despite all our movies showing simple eloquence winning out, it in fact comes across as truculence in standard meetings. I'm basically a bureaucrat, so I like rules. My point is simply that the Archdruid is proposing a solution that lost credibility because of its problems, but he completely misses those problems.

On Occupy -- it's being treated like peace demonstrations. A bunch of dfh's who are never good enough, inclusive enough, exclusive enough, effective enough, persevering enough, flexible enough, whatever. If they had just listened to people who knew better, they'd have become what? the largest political party?

Submitted by lambert on

The argument is that the GA process had big, big problems that got in the way of Occupy's "success"* and that proven methods of running meetings might lead to better outcomes for future, similar movements. I don't see that as being "technocratic." Why do you?

If an "expert" makes that argument, so what? There are plenty of GA experts as well.

NOTE * I grant for some definition of success; surely not as a political party.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

A friend of mine had a lot of experience in consensus organizations (housing co-ops) before Occupy. She observed that consensus based decision making always seemed to empower the most extreme people over time.

The Archdruid article reminded me of my experiences growing up in the Presbyterian church, which is a democratic institution that uses (mostly) majority voting. The congregation hires the pator; the pastor is not the absolute authority in the church. Churches are governed by an elected council from the members. While yes, there were always lots of politics, at least it was in the open and there were clear rules. As a friend of mine likes to say, whenever you have three or more people in a group, there will be politics.

My understanding is that the democratic form of government inside Presbyterian churches had a strong influence in the birth of the US Constitution.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

I thought the subject was "the inability of Americans with different beliefs to sit down and have a constructive conversation about their disagreements." I thought the core argument was "The ability to converse in a reasoned and reasonable fashion, and the ability to present a viewpoint in a clear, cogent, and convincing manner, are thus among the core skills of democratic process that have been lost by contemporary American society and need to be recovered in a hurry. " If I thought these "core skills" could ever be relatively equally distributed among the people, I would agree that Robert's Rules of Order are all we ever need. But they have always been skills in which the middle and upper classes are practiced. The most articulate person demonstrating the most confidence in his or her knowledge of the facts carries the discussion. The less articulate just shut up. This frequently results in apparent agreement, which in fact hides the disagreement of the less articulate. If the subject is, as I thought, "the inability of Americans with different beliefs to sit down and have a constructive conversation about their disagreements," then debating processes are only a small part of the solution and may in fact be a lot of the problem.

I was not applying the term "technocratic" to the way meetings are run in the Occupy movement. I was talking about the belief that expert opinion, i.e. the most knowledgeable coherent argument, is an unbiased way to make policy decisions. I used the placement of a garbage dump as an example because those public hearings tend to get ordinary citizens trying to make their case against studies. Those no contest.

I thought the whole Occupy diss was just that -- a diss. A minor point of the post that had the virtue of a good hippie punch. Different processes work for different goals, different subjects, different participants. Gee, if those Occupy people had just used Robert's Rules of Order they would have . . . whatever, I still haven't figured out what you envision. Maybe so. But then, they may have ended up like the anti-war demonstrations -- a few marches and over. Or like the other financial movements I've tried -- a rally, and goodbye. I thought Occupy's experiments with process were potentially valuable. But to evaluate them you'd need to identify their goals, their subjects, their participants.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

At the time of the evictions I was furious. It was obviously coordinated among Obama and the Democratic mayors and totally against the first amendment. Also I had a homeless friend at Freedom Plaza and I felt very much for him. When I first met him he had that withdrawn fatalistic demeanor common to homeless people. A month later he was more engaged. The last time I saw him he was full of energy. He talked in the most animated fashion about what was happening in the General Assembly, the actions that had been planned and what was going on on Facebook. He had what he had lacked for years, a home and a job. Mind you, the home was a tent and sleeping bag, and the facilities were a port-i-potty, and showers and laundry were at a local church, but still he had an existence that had nothing to do with charity. It had transformed him. And it is just what banksters fear, that all those homeless people who know live in shame come together and push back at their oppressors. So when the evictions happened, and when he lost the only home he had had in years, I wept.

But the truth is that the consensus process does not scale and Occupy was degenerating into a fringe group whose purpose was simply to occupy public space. It was getting counter-productive. Once the evictions took place those who were interested in projects with a purpose could get together and get something done. I am on the mailing list of Occupy Homes. Once or twice a month I get emails asking me to call this or that bank executive and ask that a foreclosure be stopped. And sometimes we win. Other Occupy groups have also reformed and now coordinate with people who want to get something done.

I just want to say that I HATE the people's mic. In a case where the locality takes away your mic or bullhorn, then it makes sense as an improvisation. But it really gets in the way of a to and fro debate, like you have at regular meetings. Rather than enabling debate it shuts it down.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

adding mic check, the people's mic, is a WONDERFUL tool for interrupting corporate meetings and other events where the people have been locked out. Go to YouTube sometime and do a search on Mic Check. You will see all manner of videos of ordinary people surprising the big shots. It does your heart good when you hear MIC CHECK ring out.

Submitted by lambert on

... and especially mic check, which works as what it is, a disruptive tactic. Yes, I agree "for some definition of disruptive." However, for the larger question, what the Archdruid said: "... come to a decision, act on it, and get home at a reasonable hour."

* * *

In your comment, you describe an epic. As usual, my recommendation is to write it up ;-) And while it's on my mind, incident reporting is also a very natural way to do strikes. In fact, your Walmart posts are already on the map....