Kick Out the Anarchists: 11/07/11

“Kick Out the Anarchists” is a new semi-regular column, designed to demystify and explain the curiously common political philosophy known as anarchism, rather than perpetuate the myths.

Photo by flickr user biphop

Hello, my name is Adam Rothstein, and I’m an anarchist.

It still kind of freaks me out to say or type that out loud. Not that I’m ashamed of it, or that I live in the sort of country where making such a declaration is in itself an arrestable offense. I suppose it’s just that I’m past the teenage years when such a statement is a proud rebellion, and not quite so old that I don’t entirely care what people think about me.

Because, admit it: hearing me say that already starts coloring a picture in your head. You can kind of imagine what I look like, can’t you? Let me help you. I do have an odd hair style–but I did before I was an anarchist. In fact, I’ve had weird hair since I was ten years old. I do wear black often–but I think that has more to do with nerdy use of computers than of consensus groups. I do listen to punk music–but that is more a rebellious outlet than anything to do with politics. And I like folk and classical music more, to tell you the truth. I do ride a bicycle–but that’s more because I live in Portland than anything else. And my bike has gear shifters. So I’ve got that going for me.

And I do have some pretty bizarre ideas about the way that people might govern themselves and run their society. Okay–so that is not a look at all. But by telling you I’m an anarchist, you’ve already got a certain idea of what ideas that you think that I believe. We all know what anarchists believe, right?

They believe in nothing. No, wait, that’s nihilism.

They believe there shouldn’t be a government. No, that’s not entirely true either, because some anarchists love organization and infrastructure, which is all government really is.

They hate cops. No, that’s not true, because some anarchists are hippies that love everyone.

This is the problem. Anarchism is by nature a movement of autonomous individuals making their own decisions, and coming to their own points of view about things. The category defies categorization. So what good is it, if it can’t be defined? Well, I don’t know that we should go that far as to say that anarchism isn’t anything at all. Anarchists do have particular perspectives on things, which they are typically happy to explain to anyone willing to listen. Anarchism is a thing–I know, because not only do I agree with it, I see it practiced every day.

So, as an anarchist involved with the Portland Occupation–a movement with some similarities and affinities with anarchism–I thought I would help solve this problem, by writing a column to help explain some issues from an anarchist perspective. I’m just one person, and not every anarchist or non-anarchist would agree with my characterization of things, nor would I want them to. But anarchism is all around you, and not just at the occupations spreading all over the globe. When you share something without asking for anything in return–you might say that’s anarchism. When you settle a disagreement such that everyone leaves satisfied–you might say that’s anarchism. When people work together for everyone’s common benefit–you might say that’s anarchism. These are all good things, in my estimation. So I thought I’d talk about them, if you’re willing to listen.

If you’ve been down to an occupation, or have read about them or seen video, you might be aware that we run regular General Assemblies, or GA’s. These are meetings at which the occupation makes important decisions about what the movement is going to do. Anyone can attend, and every meeting has a different number of people, depending on who is willing to come down and take part.

The GA’s run in a special way, called “consensus”. The gist of consensus that is that we end up with a decision that everyone is happy with, and no one ends up “voted down”, “vetoed”, or “overruled”. Obviously, this is a complex thing to do, what with sometimes several hundred people attending a GA. Each GA has, through consensus, approved a different process for helping this happen. Here in Portland, we have proposals, which are then discussed, amended, and hopefully approved. If we can get 90% of the people attending the GA to agree on a proposal, we consider that approved. It’s not 100%, but it is a heck of a lot of happy people, and allows for a few people to really disagree if they choose to.

In order to have a functional consensus group, people come to the GA hoping to add their perspective and come to an agreement, not to “vote” their opinion in the typical way. In a representational democracy, one finds the candidate that has the most similar opinion to oneself, and votes for him or her. If that person is elected, then hooray! That similar opinion will make decisions for you. If that person loses, then bummer. Someone you disagree with will make decisions for you for the next year, two years, or four years. But in a direct democracy, like a consensus group, we decide a course of option that is best for everyone, rather than picking between alternate solutions that will inevitably leave someone upset. This takes an open mind, because one can’t just be thinking of oneself at all times. When I’m at a GA, I’m constantly thinking, “how can we best tackle the issue so no one is left out?” Sometimes I think of a solution that represents more people, and sometimes someone else does. But after discussing it, it’s remarkable that we almost always find something that works for everyone. The solutions are out there, if we open our minds and starting thinking about solutions, rather than simply options.

But it doesn’t always work. Some people just like to disagree. And sometimes, we can’t quite hit on the solution that works for everyone. Even when it works, it often takes a few hours to get to the point where we’ve found the solution. However, when it works, which it does most of the time, there is really no feeling like leaving the GA, knowing that the decision is one you agree with, and you helped come to that decision. I feel like a citizen, like I’m included, and like I’m part of the society. I don’t feel like an outcast, a minority, a third-party, or a unpopular opinion.

“Consensus” has a long history in anarchist processes and organizations, but anarchists didn’t invent it. It’s been used all over the world, for many years. Here at the Portland Occupation, I see liberals, libertarians, leftists, anarchists, and people who have never engaged in any sort of politics before, getting involved and using consensus together. And they all leave happy.

It can be confusing, viewed from the outside. I hear lots of people say that it doesn’t work, or that it is bad because it doesn’t have the unifying quality of leaders making decisions for us (as if our leaders didn’t set the bar pretty high for two-facedness, doublespeak, and miscommunication). It is confusing, if you’ve never done it before. And yet, look at how many people are using it, all across the country. People who have never used it before, who are defining it for themselves for the first time. People who never agreed with each other before, are getting together and making decisions. The great part about anarchist principles is that you don’t have to be an anarchist in order to benefit because of them.

You can leave being an anarchist to us. The folks with better hair.

by Adam Rothstein

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  4 comments for “Kick Out the Anarchists: 11/07/11

  1. Lindsey Walker
    November 7, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    I learned about consensus in conference rooms and calls working in IT for the military industrial complex where four or more corporations would be involved in setting the objectives for a project. It was not a top down structure at all, but a major consensus gathering exercise. The more I understood that the more successful my projects were. Everyone from the CIO of the client, to the programmer in India had to be in consensus on how something was done or else the project would not be done successfully within budget, if at all. The power of the executives was simply a social veneer. The flattening of human working relationships has been taking place for sometime. It would be nice if we could all see and admit that and foster it instead of hanging on to the old unequal hierarchical system. Maybe we’d build less bombs.

  2. Kendall
    November 8, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    I love the writing here, Adam, and thanks for the clarity. I was head of the Theatre Department at Smith College in the 80s, and I used consensus at all department meetings, based on the feminist work of Starhawk. Here she is, talking about consensus, less amusingly than you do, but also very clear: http://www.starhawk.org/activism/trainer-resources/consensus.html

    I look forward to meeting you soon and to working with you on Occupy Portland.

  3. forrest
    November 8, 2011 at 11:03 PM

    Great read. I’ve only recently come to overcome my impressions of anarchism and to look at it with a more curious mind. Funny, ’cause I’ve been inclined towards socialism for most of my life. Somehow I was stuck with first impressions when it came to anarchists.

    Through being involved more and more with Occupy I’ve been exposed to anarchism in a way that I never have. I’ve been learning a lot.

    Thanks for your great writing. Hope to see more on this subject.

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