Written By: - Date published: 1:11 pm, October 15th, 2011 - 38 comments
Categories: activism, class war, community democracy, democratic participation, political education, Politics, uncategorized - Tags: beyond resistance, International, occupations, participatory democracy, protest
Does this sound familiar?
We have no official spokespeople. Correspondingly, no single view should be seen as necessarily representing the views of (the movement) as an organisation or of other people who are a part of (the movement). We are many contributors and participators from many diverse constituences and viewpoints. We are many voices.
You might be forgiven for thinking that extract comes from a contemporary leaflet produced on the back of one of the many occupations happening today. But it’s from ten years ago when an attempt was made to build a movement here in New Zealand to counter the government’s support in the invasion of Afghanistan.
That movement withered. It withered for very definate reasons. And that is what this post is about. See it as a cautionary tale if you will.
When the movement began, it attracted people of all ages from a very wide range of political, religious and cultural back grounds. In the interests of ensuring that matters proceeded in as democratic a fashion as possible, it was agreed that there would be no ‘branding’ of any action or protest undertaken. As such, traditional organisations were excluded from decision making in recognition of the fact that they would bring a power imbalance to the table. Individuals who belonged to such organisations were encouraged to participate as individuals rather than as representatives of their particular organisation. So (for example) unionists were a part and parcel of the decision making processes and took part in actions, but the unions they belonged to and the particular agendas of those unions were not.
No information that was produced (and there was a lot of it!) carried organisational logos and no banners or flags used in actions promoted any specific political organisation.
It was felt, that as well as preserving the democratic integrity of the movement, denying organisations a platform for self promotion would make it easier for people to become involved. People weren’t being asked to identify with anything they might feel uncomfortable with beyond the actual issues at hand.
And it worked.
An ever growing spread of people gravitated towards the nascent movement, drawn solely by concerns over the invasion and connected issues. Where some people might have had initial misgivings about operating in new ways that didn’t involve having the organisational structures they were used to in such a situation (heirachical decision making processes; nominated leaders etc), those misgivings were quickly set aside. People soon found that it wasn’t necessary to have everyone agree on a particular matter to have that matter expressed either in action or as printed literature. (There were considerations beyond mere numbers to be taken into account, but there’s no need to go into that here) So for example, a presence outside the local MP’s office ‘only’ required that enough people were ‘up for it’ to make it happen. And whereas some had no interest in religion, those who did could (and did) generate a presence that offered a counter perspective at a large prayer congregation held at the time. The Octagon was occupied for three days and nights with food, music and politics on the menu. In terms of literature there was, by way of example, some that argued for UN involvement in Afghanistan and some that argued against UN involvement. It was reasoned that people could make up their own minds on where they stood and engage correspondingly.
In short, there was ample opportunity for people to express themselves and their concerns, to getn involved in ways they were comfortable with and free from the shackles that come with majority rule or any insistence that a unified front or voice be presented.
However, the authoritarian left simply couldn’t live with that concept and insisted that their democratic rights were being undermined. By democratic rights, they actually meant the right of their organisation to self promote and the right to elevate their organisation’s particular political prescriptions above all others and to recruit people into their organisation. As such, they would only arrive at any meetings as mouthpieces for their organisation rather than as individual citizens and never offered support to actions emanating from those meetings.
In the end (and awash with irony) it all broke apart and there were two somewhat opposing peace presences in the city.
Finally the same old routine of marches peppered with one organisations logos, and rallies where people were spoken at by people using P.A. systems, rather than where people could enter into conversation with one another and explore ideas, re-established itself as the norm. A lot of the people who had initially gravitated towards the opportunities presented them by the somewhat (to them) novel organisational structures of the movement, initially participated in the marches and rallies organised by the authoritarian left. But within that framework they became subject to a dominant party line, no longer had the opportunity to do their own thing and were sidelined from the decision making process. Eventually, disempowered and disgruntled, they disengaged.
As I heard one person observe at the time – why should he, as a Christian, be asked or expected to march beneath banners that espoused a particular political ideology he didn’t ascribe to, and that his very presence would seem to endorse, when he didn’t ask or expect others to march behind or below any religious symbol?
Then, as now, the overwhelming majority of us are used to decisions flowing down from heirachical decision making structures. It’s not that we’re incapable of operating in a different, more democratic environment. In fact, in my experience, people take to it rather fast and readily. The problem is an inability to perceive the danger presented to any budding democratic scenario by heirachical organisational structures.
That’s my reservation when I read of the various occupations happening at the moment, including, the solidarity actions planned today in New Zealand. Eventually, if not initially, organisations with inherently disempowering organisational structures will attempt to involve themselves in what’s going on. They have pre-existing financial resources and organisational structures that would promise short term gains. But if they get a foot in the door, the vitality and opportunity presented by genuinely democratic modes of organising will be sacrificed to preserve the organisational integrity of whatever organisation it is that inserts itself into proceedings. And I’m not just talking about one of the authoritarian leftist sects here. It could be the unions or any one of a number of liberal organisations that are structured along heirachical lines.
If anything genuinely new is to emerge from the citizen inspired events emerging around the world, then awareness of the pitfalls presented by orthodox organisations, and strategies to deal with them, must be developed.