All posts by Evan Buswell

Solidarity not Unity – Division, Consensus, and the Outside

The General Strike and “Violence”

I experienced the general strike in Oakland on Nov. 2 as an overwhelming success. The port was successfully shut down for the night, by some accounts by up to 100,000 people, and certainly well into the tens of thousands. It was celebratory, and beautiful.

After checking the usual internet sources the next morning, however, it became apparent that’s not the spin it got. Two other events were instead highlighted. First, there was some property destruction at various points (i.e. broken windows). Second, there was an attempted occupation of a vacant building at 520 16th street, to set up a free school and library. The response to this latter event is, unfortunately, becoming less surprising in Oakland: batons, rubber bullets, flashbangs, tear gas, and a seriously injured veteran. For several days afterwards much of the movement was preoccupied with this story, about whether those who acted autonomously and were branded by the news media were harmful to the movement, and about what tactics should be endorsed and prohibited.

The Orchestrated Split with “Violent” Anarchists

This is a story that has been building for thirteen years. Shortly after the 1999 WTO protests, the media spin quickly became about the “peaceful” activists vs. the “violent” activists, with the latter universally characterized as anarchists, members of a shadowy “black bloc” organization that was hell bent on ruining an otherwise perfectly upstanding protest. Immediately the narrative of much of the left became about the harm these violent outsiders wrought on the “message” of the protest, they way they were “hijacking” or “co-opting” the movement. I remember that many of my friends, after returning from the WTO protest, were completely confused as to the way “the black bloc” had become stigmatized. Their experience of black bloc tactics was mostly that when the police started to escalate, the black bloc came in through the tear gas (many had gas masks) and offered medical assistance, got people to safe places, and reinforced the human blockades everyone was setting up throughout the city. The “peace” vs. “violence” story that we hear now is a deliberate distortion of reality.

As always, we must be open to seriously questioning the efficacy and desirability of certain tactics. But regardless of what we think about particular tactics, the division of the movement into a “black bloc” and a “peaceful” contingent limits the possible tactics to a predetermined list, and destroys relationships between people which could otherwise be productive. Even in its more sophisticated, less media-hype-driven form, the disavowal of one protesting group by another effectively creates an inside and an outside to the movement. One group’s role is legitimate dissent; the other group’s is illegitimate, nonrepresentative provocation. Distinction of socially valid and invalid voices is inevitably accompanied by the distinction of socially valid and invalid peoples. Tactical discussions are absolutely essential, but they are discussions we have to have within the movement, not between the people who suppose they are part of the movement and the others who have been marginalized.

The Consensus Model as Enforced Unity

With the overwhelming success of the GA (general assembly) model, the tenor of this discussion is changing. Now, rather than just exasperation that “the black bloc” doesn’t “represent the movement,” we get on the one hand a legitimate feeling of disenfranchisement when supposedly autonomous actions occur, and on the other hand suggestions that we should organize a group to prevent the “violence,” or that we should issue a formal statement, “as a movement,” that any tactic like this is not part of The Occupy Movement. These “peace” vs. “violence” debates illuminate unresolved issues that are at the very core of our movement: policing, representation, enfranchisement, and the relationship between autonomy and collectivity. The consensus process has been our answer to all of these for a while, but if its overwhelming success has made clear its potentials, it has also revealed its shortcomings.

Just as we should be wary of narratives of division within the movement, we should be equally wary about stories of unity. These are really just two ways of looking at the same thing: the creation of an artificially unified mainstream and a disenfranchised outside. Our rallying cry should be solidarity, not unity; our physical togetherness, not our behavioral similarity. What has become clear from the application of consensus to occupations and general assemblies is that, in fact, consensus has always depended on the ingroup/outgroup distinction. A block (or “no” vote) means, effectively, if this group goes forward with this event, I will leave. And just as much, a consensed-on decision means: if you don’t go forward with this, you aren’t part of our group. To some degree (though only to some degree), the ingroup/outgroup model makes sense for a movement that is well-bounded in space, time, and objective, like the shutdown of a particular governance meeting (WTO, IMF, World Bank, G8, etc). This constituted the vast majority of the actions during the 2000s. Now, the situation is completely different. Our goals and tactics go far beyond a specific time-based objective, but more importantly, we have gained the task of organizing space, rather than just people.

Consensus and the Outside

If my experience at the occupation at Davis is any indication of a larger trend, and rumors as well as internet chatter indicate that it is, this is probably the biggest issue within the movement. Firstly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between so-called “autonomous” and group actions. Our camp changes form constantly, changes are made that people disagree with, and people start feeling like they’re losing their hold on the movement. Secondly, when we are confronted with aggression or harassment that is threatening to our camp, we often have to deal with it on the spot, without recourse to a GA. All disciplinary action is the same: exile. In a way, consensus ideology implies a Lockean paradise: you freely choose to belong to a society, and if you don’t like it you leave. Consensus depends on the fiction of an “outside” in two respects: first, that each individual has the capacity to act autonomously outside the group, apart from the group, not affecting the group as a whole; second, that disunited elements can be merely ejected back into the already-existing society. This fictional outside is now being confronted for the fiction that it always was.

Consensus has essentially nothing to say about what takes place outside of GAs. It assumes that discipline will never be necessary. It assumes that nobody needs to have a say if they can’t be physically present. And what is most important, it assumes that the space outside of the GA can be a space of complete autonomy without conflict. What the occupations are making clear is that some sort of discipline is necessary, many people want to find a way to be involved but cannot yet come to every GA, and the profound togetherness we experience within the GA does not magically become isolated autonomy as soon as we step outside of it.

As much as we had hoped otherwise, consensus is not a miniature, liberated future developing independently of the state. Consensus is totally dependent on the presence of a larger state to which it can eject elements that its process has no other means to discipline. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is, actually, a world outside of the movement, and until the movement becomes the dominant force in the world, it must exist in relation to that world. That is, it must exist dialectically: the movement must be apart from and nevertheless in relationship to that which it hopes to change. As a consciousness of reality, the outside should be preserved, because it’s there. But in our directions and our goals, we must constantly work to get rid of that outside. We need to begin practically defining mechanisms for enforcing some minimum of discipline without expelling the undisciplined to the mercy of the state.

In order to do this, we have to know what discipline is. And this means that we need to begin critically remapping the relationship between autonomy and collectivity. We must learn to see our freedom in collectivity. This may have been theoretically achieved many times, but practically, autonomy and collectivity are still in conflict, and that conflict extends to the rest of the movement.

Consensus and Social Care

The value of consensus is proven by the fact that its shortcomings have become clear: our expectations have been raised by our experiences of its immensely democratic power. Representation, which is mostly just a system to legitimize exclusion from the political process, is being actively replaced with participation. When the consensus process is focused on participation and discussion, then, it is extremely effective at being inclusive. No one can be prevented from speaking. But the “unanimous” decisions within consensus are fetishized as if they provided a complete social order, when in reality they provide only a few punctuated moments in a complex cooperative activity. The small part of our sociality that is actually formalized stands in for our sociality as a whole.

“Consensus” has always been metonymic (that is, a part standing for a whole) for a whole range of social behaviors, only a few of which are actually present in the formal consensus process. But the effect of consensus-as-metonymy is to obscure those social behaviors which have yet to be formally encoded into the consensus process. Rather than an ultimately doomed race to encode more and more of our social practice into highly systematized political structures―this race is an integral part of what we are trying to escape―we have to start giving equal priority to those things which happen outside of these structures, outside of consensus. That which is outside our formal processes must be actively included in our sociality. This will require care, and work, and may eventually react back on the formal processes. Rather than fetishizing these processes as the bearers of social good, rather than imagining that they could provide the basis for social care, we have to recognize them as only one small part of our sociality, all of which must push constantly towards care. In that push, consensus will no doubt be transformed.

If the occupation movement teaches us only one thing, it is this: it is never too early to begin building the future. For the first time in many years, we have created a space that is set apart from capitalism, and aims to be permanent. This space is already often beautiful, but it provides us with more questions than answers. As Žižek recently wrote: “there is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions―not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want. What social organization can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What organs, including those of control and repression? The 20th-century alternatives obviously did not work.

“Consensus” is not the answer, and cannot be allowed to defer these questions.