Editor's notes

Leninists? Hardly -- Occupy Wall Street protesters are all about consensus



It's nice to see that the days when you could get away with calling protesters commies are back. CNBC says that the Occupy Wall Street activists are "anarchists" who are "aligned with Lenin." Actually, none of the anarchists I know are remotely Leninist. The communists of old were all for the creation of a powerful state. Lenin read Bakunin in his early years, but later declared that anarchists were "bourgeois revolutionaries."

But I wouldn't expect Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer and Joe Kernan to be up on their radical history. They clearly haven't spent much time with the people of the Occupy Wall Street movement, either. If they did, they'd realize that — like most of the left-wing movements that have sprung up with young people at the forefront in the United States over the past half century — the essential politics of Occupy Wall Street aren't derived from Lenin, Marx, Castro, the Sandinistas, or Hugo Chavez. It's about self-reliance, about community control and free expression, and in its purest form, it's a rejection of the old role of leaders and authority. It would have driven Lenin mad.

I grew up on that side of politics. In college, the anti-apartheid and antinuclear movements were all about consensus process, all about the rejection of any sort of power relationships. We had no elected presidents or chairpeople. We didn't vote on anything — voting disempowers the losing side. We took no action until we could reach consensus; everyone had to agree with everything.

What ultimately happened was that the people who could stick around for very long meetings, typically very late at night, where everybody had a lot to say and nobody got to tell anyone to cut it short, made the decisions. I never lasted.

When you're all at an encampment with nowhere to go, it's a thrilling exercise in real, direct democracy. When you're trying to do organizing involving people who have jobs, kids, and lives that can't fit three-hour (at best) meetings into the schedule, you leave a lot of your potential allies out.

The most interesting thing, though, is that the organizing principle of the protests, by its nature, involves distrusting government. That's been part of the young left for a long time — and for those of us who believe in a strong public sector, it's a bit, as they say, challenging.


Tim, modern consensus based decision making has evolved considerably from the limited and frankly inaccurate concept of it that you portray above.

Good consensus process -never- requires everyone to 'agree with everything'. I don't know of even one consensus based group which operates that way. The true purpose of consensus is to reach positions that at least -almost- everyone agrees with, with at most, only a small number of people deciding they don't necessarily agree, but can live with the decision going forward.

In addition to this, most groups using consensus, in cases where rapid or difficult decisions simply must be made even though there is some strong disagreement, will agree to call a super majority vote on a tough issue.

This cuts down on the time factor a lot when really necessary.

How do you think these protests have accomplished so much in the last three weeks?

The answer -is- kick ass, effective, consensus based decision making.

To learn more about how consensus really works, and get a good guide to how to use it, go to: http://www.actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Consensus.html

Posted by Eric Brooks on Oct. 14, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

I've been attending and photographing OccupySF since they started. Those bloody meetings are endless. And they are all about administrative decisions. We're talking three to four hours of meetings, seven days a week. You can not run a society that way and you can't run anything that way unless the only thing you're running is an endless meeting.

Actually that's the reason I take photographs. If I had to just show up and participate in the meetings I couldn't be there at all. I hate meetings.

The other night I visited OccupyOakland. They were having their General Assembly. When I got there, they were discussing whether to allow peeing on the official Oakland oak tree, located in Frank Ogawa plaza (now renamed Oscar Grant plaza by the protesters).

When I left an hour later, they'd finally decided whether to allow people to pee on the tree. I don't remember what they decided.

I love the spirit and the energy of the Occupy movement. The naive rhetoric and the endless meetings I'm having some trouble with.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 14, 2011 @ 11:46 pm

Yes sometimes consensus takes time. Keep in mind that a lot of these protesters are just learning consensus for the first time. It will be bumpy until they get the hang of it.

One good way to cut down on long meetings like that is to simply set a time limit.

And good consensus also depends on good facilitators. It doesn't just magically happen on its own. It sounds like the SF and Oakland encampments need some good leaders to give more guidance.

But even with top notch facilitators, sometimes it really does take more time to get things done by consensus. However it's worth it. Much more unity and solidarity of purpose can be achieved.

My guess is that, if they are growing larger in number, they may need to break off into affinity groups and form a spokescouncil so they can focus on getting to practical tasks more efficiently.

This thing is just getting started. Give it a little time to get its legs.

And remember, you don't have to stay for a whole meeting, or even be at the meetings at all. You can just show up, help get some things done and head out until the next time you want to take part.

One beauty of consensus is that it is flexible.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 12:22 am

Nix the leaders, a leaderless movement does not need leaders given that most who would posit themselves as leaders have records of abject failure when they've tried to lead.

Our democracy has been outsourced to scamsters just like our economy has been outsourced to labor arbitragers. Just as recovering a manufacturing economy will require relearning how to make stuff, recovering our democracy will require learning how to make decisions.

They don't call legislating sausage making for nothing. Working with people to arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise is not always easy no matter what the forum looks like.

To my mind, it is better to let the young folks figure this out for themselves than to taint them with the toxicity of the cold war era activists who would insert themselves as leaders. The last thing that Occupy needs is middle aged, middle class white people like me inserting ourselves as leaders.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 6:51 am

I have never seen even good consensus process working without particular individuals taking a strong lead and guiding people.

The problem with simply letting only young people figure it out on their own, is that this unnecessarily forces them to completely reinvent the wheel on direct democratic process when we have been using it effectively for decades and know most of the basic pitfalls. As long as we are not heavy handed and have a strong mind to standing back from the process and only jumping in to help when needed, the process will work fine.

And the other reason for experienced anarchist to serve as such leaders in the Occupy movement, is that if -we- don't lead, you can bet your ass that weak liberal, hierarchical, labor leaders, grant funded nonprofit staff, and politicians, will gladly and all too quickly step into that leadership void and dominate the whole movement to its detriment.

So if we are to promote anarchism and direct democracy we'd better damned well get involved.

It's either that or Move-On, Acorn, SEIU, AFL-CIO, etc will step in and totally coopt this movement to their own ends and drive into milquetoast compromise-with-power liberalism, focused on useless national electoral politics; like re-electing fucking Barack Obama for god's sake.

We don't have a choice if we want this to go in the direction of true direct democracy. We have to get on there and help lead.

That said, old warhorse white guys like you and me should definitely restrain ourselves and hang back as much as possible, to give a -lot- of space for younger women and/or people of color who -do- have good experience with direct democracy (and there are a lot of them) to step up first to help guide the new organizers.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

We need new wheels.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

Tim, then you began to work with the Guardian that does not give a rat's ass about what its constituency thinks and has compromised San Francisco's progressive movement--Obama-like--with wishy washy watered down liberalism that withered in the face of a well funded onslaught from corporate San Francisco.

This insulation of the only news organ with pretensions of connection to the community has led both to the near extinction of San Francisco progressivism and the decline of the Guardian into a thinner and thinner journal of Burning Man that relies on under and unpaid women to write the bulk of real news.

Accountability is required to course correct when things go south, and the Guardian has proven itself resiliently resistant to any accountability because its structural connections to the community barely exist.

For the first time in our lives, a radical concept--evicting finance capital from government--has captured the popular imagination. This did not happen by traditional radical activist organizing, rather it happened spontaneously in spite of advocacy and activist nonprofits, organized labor and the democratic party upon which the SFBG relies for much of its "connection" to community.

Evolve or perish.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 7:23 am

Somewhere buried in this ancient, anachronistic, anarchistic text, is an admonition against acquiescence to 'authority' of any kind.

Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

Short Attention Span. It's at 1:26, but worth listening to from beginning to:-

Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

This forum is supposed to be for commenting and sharing opinions - not a place for you to post the end-product of yet another one of your days spent exploring the wonder that is YouTube.

Seriously. Your favorite videos are a lot more interesting to you than they are anyone else.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

" like most of the left-wing movements that have sprung up with young people at the forefront in the United States over the past half century — the essential politics of Occupy Wall Street aren't derived from Lenin, Marx, Castro, the Sandinistas, or Hugo Chavez. It's about self-reliance, about community control and free expression, and in its purest form, it's a rejection of the old role of leaders and authority."

You lump a lot of disparate personalities together here, Tim.

As I understand it, the "essential politics" of Occupy Wall Street is that something needs to be done about the growing wealth inequality, and associated corruption of democracy that's going on as a result.

Well, in Venezuela, they're doing something about it, right here and now. Wealth inequality is sharply down, even as incomes are up. The government is experimenting with alternative forms of ownership -not just state ownership, but turning enterprises over to community-based cooperatives. Freedom of expression is flourishing like never before; media is being de-consolidated out of the hands of a few wealthy owners and community media is springing up everywhere; voices of the poor, women, indigenous people are being heard for the first time. And while yes, they have a charismatic leader, in many ways it's also a bottom-up movement with community councils making a lot of the local decisions about how resources are allocated, decisions that used to be made at the top.

I don't mind the movement being leaderless at this point. Indeed, at this stage it has to be leaderless. But at some point, leaders do need to emerge, and goals/demands need to crystallize.

The system can be changed, peacefully and democratically. And in Venezuela, and indeed throughout all of Latin America, they're showing us how it can be done.

Posted by Greg on Oct. 15, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

Venezuela previously had a creaky liberal/conservative duopoly that was merely cliques of elites competing for the resources of the state just like here.

I doubt that there are progressive charismatic elements in the US military that can play Chavez' role here.

The focus of Occupy is to evict finance capital from government. That focus is not in frame for the media and thus cannot be coopted. The media therefore tries to get the movement to move into frame with "acceptable" and "reasonable" demands so that the cooptation process can begin.

Inchoate is a survival strategy here.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 6:03 am

I agree, Marc. It's why I said that the movement had to be leaderless right now.

But in the end, anarchy isn't exactly a viable option.

It doesn't have to take the same form as Venezuela. In Bolivia that leadership came from the indigenous social movements, and was actually opposed by the military.

In Argentina, the president they elected came from outside the movement entirely. People were taking over failed businesses and running it themselves. And when the presidential election came around, they were out in the streets chanting "get rid of them all" [the politicians]. But *someone* had to win. Kirchner wasn't exactly charismatic; he was an unknown provincial governor. But he was the only one willing to tap into the popular discontent with the system as it was.

I could see something like the Argentinian model happening here. Or something different -every country needs to find it's own path. But all of these movements have something to teach us. That's where my disagreement with Tim lies. He says that the essential politics of the Occupy movement doesn't come from any of these people. No, it comes from ALL of these people. We can learn from social movements throughout Latin America who have been able to peacefully and democratically seize and hold power.

Posted by Greg on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 8:05 am

We've tried Leninism and Stalinism, Greenspan brought us a 30 year experiement in Libertarian Capitalism. We don't know how anarchy will or won't work until we give it a go as well.

I'd take the Bolivian example as more apt for us than Venezuela.

Why again would anyone look to Tim Redmond for political advice? The problem with SF progressives is that normal people, having racked up a serial record of failure over the past five years, would hang their heads in shame and shuffle off the stage, that is if they didn't off themselves. Not so here, where the narcissism of the professional progressive political class knows no bounds.

Posted by marcos on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 8:53 am

It is also important to understand that a successful movement toward organized structural anarchism (direct democracy) is not really a question of immediate revolution that simply overthrows the entire system all at once (such rapid complete revolution which usually leads to failure, because it triggers an immediate and vicious backlash by fearful elites, such as in the cases of the Paris Commune and the Soviet Union).

The South American examples are good ones. Instead of trying to revolt and overthrow the entire capitalist system at once, anarchists in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc, have instead wisely pursued structural anarchism more organically, locally and gradually, from the ground up, and in progressively growing -competition- with the state, instead of in direct absolute challenge. And in the interesting cases of Cuba and Venezuela, the hierarchical states themselves have funded and supported localized anarchism in the form of neighborhood councils; wisely recognizing that creating such local self empowerment makes the entire country more strong, sustainable, and more likely to make sensible overall governance decisions. It is also interesting to note that Spanish anarchists, though they have at times moved too rapidly and provoked an elite backlash, have also managed to keep their movement localized, organic and gradual enough to survive, again in dynamic competition with state spheres of governance. (We should probably dedicate some study to why these Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries have done so much better with evolving local direct democracy than have the rest of us...)

As Marcos indicates, we should pursue the same model in the U.S. and establish widespread local direct democracy projects and co-ops, as well as neighborhood councils, workers councils, and affinity groups, which are governed by anarchist/consensus methods, which become progressively more interactively federated with eachother, and which thereby gradually evolve and expand to compete more and more over time with our top-down 'representative' government, so that by the end of the century, grassroots direct democracy predominates for decision making over the hierarchy, and perhaps completely replaces it.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 10:06 am

I suspect you may find this a difficult proposition to comprehend, but 'commenting and sharing opinions' is not restricted to simply stringing a bunch of words together on paper. As sentient, somewhat evolved, beings we have a wide variety of options available to us by which we can communicate. But then I imagine you would also dismiss Woody Guthrie, Bruegel etc, as being irrelevant and having no place in social commentary.
It is interesting to note that you presume to speak for everyone else, and have not only defined what this forum is, but also what qualifies as comment or opinion.

Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Oct. 16, 2011 @ 8:33 am