Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Letters from Occupy Eugene

Hi folks,
   No pictures today, I'm afraid, I've only been able to make it out to the protest after dark, and my camera is teh suxxor at night, with a flash range of approximately ten centimeters. Anyway, Occupy Eugene is still going strong, and has actually grown significantly since Saturday night; last night, I estimate that at least three hundred people were encamped on a small city block two hundred feet on a side. The medical tent is well stocked, and was being attending by an honest-to-Einstein MD when I dropped in. The food tent continues to dish up free, hot meals thrice a day for anyone who is hungry, thanks to generous donations from the larger community. And every two minutes or so, a car passing on busy downtown streets honks in solidarity at the camp.
   This is all very cool, of course, and testifies to the staying power of the protest, logistically. But what is really impressing me about it is the way that the Occupation is being governed.
   See, I was deeply skeptical about the idea of "consensus government" at the start. I've had a lot of interaction with democracy, as a voter at national and state levels and a direct participant at local levels, and I have not in general been impressed by the ability of large groups of people to Get Shit Done. When I heard that the Occupation in Eugene, like those in other cities, was adopting consensus, whereby any single person in an arbitrary assembly has effective veto power over any proposal, I thought "well, this'll last about a day." Consensus worked great for organizing meetings that were at least half pep-rally, I though, but as soon as this is being utilized at twice daily town hall meetings in an actual village (and at this point, no other word captures what is going on down in Park Blocks), it'll fall apart.
   I'm delighted to report that I was wrong. Four days into the Occupation, consensus is being used very effectively to do everything from establish talking points for media contacts, to determining quiet hours for the settlement (a pair of issues that came up last night while I was crawling around in the generator tent trying to figure out where the hell Engineering had put the ground fault interrupter, but I'm getting sidetracked). Which is not to say that there was never dissent; people did block proposals, initially, but this precipitated discussion and amendment of the proposal at hand, rather than killing it outright.
   At this point I should lay out the mechanics of a consensus-based meeting. Like Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure, there is a system to consensus. Basically, a consensus meeting proceeds very similarly to other Robert's Rules sorts of situations, with an agenda, a speaker's list, old and new business. Rather than a single chair person, however, there is a group of "facilitators," who have a sort of informal social authority to run the meeting, but do not have the authority to deny speakers the floor; excessive violations of speaker's order or rules of conduct are enforced by the entire body, not the "chair." Anybody can put forth a motion, and the following discussion strongly resembles a standard parliamentary session, with points of information and procedure, direct responses, and speakers for and against taking the floor. When someone calls the question, however, the voting gets interesting: voting is by display of hands, with hand signals for three votes: "agree," block," and "stand aside."
   Since consensus requires no dissenting votes, a single "block" stops a resolution from passing. However, as I mentioned before, this does not mean that a proposal dies; it gets kicked right back into discussion. In my experience, after a decent amount of conversation most "blockers" were appeased, and the few that weren't would "stand aside." "Standing aside," I found out, is one of the ways to "vote" in a consensus system, and it operates something like abstention; the voter is saying that they are not completely happy with the proposal as it stands, but will not block its passage. This is a key point, as it allows someone to register their displeasure with a measure, without hanging up the process. Unlike a standard majority rule system, this places enormous social pressure on someone genuinely voting "No" by blocking. By exercising a power of veto, you are pretty much required to explain your reasoning. This makes it much harder for people to exploit the veto than I had originally thought.
   I'm not suggesting that consensus is superior to majority rule as a democratic system. In fact, in any situation where every voting member is not sitting in the same room and voting openly (not in secret), it would be completely unworkable. But it IS, evidently, a workable system for a community of some hundreds of people. And given the speculations here and elsewhere about the impact peak oil and climate change are going to have on the mean size of human settlements in the future, I think it is interesting to consider alternative democratic mechanisms for small communities. As I continue to cover the Eugene Occupation, I'll be paying very close attention to its development at a municipal system.


  1. I haven't been by our local outpost of the national movement as much as I'd like, thanks to school. But on the occasions I've stopped by, I've sensed some dissatisfaction with the consensus-based decision-making system. I heard grumbling about discussions dragging on for days, and people abusing the block option. On the other hand, when I stopped by most recently, the facilitators went out of their way, at the beginning of the daily assembly, to describe the inherent purpose of the block feature, as a sort of nuclear option to be used once every thousand blue moons or so. I think the social pressure against the abusers may have been building.

    On the whole, I remain agnostic about the consensus method. It does seem to be working well in a lot of locations, and is good for generating "buy in." On the other hand, our particular local branch of the movement here in Albuquerque doesn't seem to be acting with as much urgency and systematic purpose as some others. On Sunday an AFL-CIO representative was in attendance and seemed a bit skeptical of the whole thing, and none of the movement regulars seemed to be making much of an effort to reach out to him for resources and support. On the other hand, it's entirely possible some such thing is going on that I'm not aware of.

    In general, our general assembly seems far more interested in endless debates about philosophical issues, with not as much attention to logistics, media, and generating popular support. But, like I said, I might be totally wrong on that, because I haven't been physically present as much as I'd like.

    Which brings me to another issue. The reality is that most people can't take huge chunks out of their day to stand around at the university campus holding signs or manning a food booth. And lots of people around the urban sprawl that is Albuquerque may sympathize with the movement but lack money, transportation, and time to come down to the inhabitation (we're not calling it an "occupation" because that was deemed offensive to Native Americans; the official name was "UnOccupy Albuquerque," last time I checked).

    Still in all, I think there mere existence of our little encampment is a victory in and of itself. It does generate continuous attention from the media and has been brought up in our city council. Also, the mere existence of the Albuquerque site helps show the existence of a nationwide network of protest. I won't call it "resistance," because I'm not sure that it is yet. A resistance movement would be aimed at identifying specific actions to delegitimize and weaken the ability of established institutions to exert power abusively over key aspects of people's lives. The Occupy movement, so far, hasn't really done that in the same way that the Arab uprisings did.

    But it's still interesting, for having changed the conversation.

  2. Thanks for the insight into the Albuquerque branch! I'm not surprised to hear that consensus is maybe not working there as well as it might. I had a nice conversation with a facilitator last night (during my overnight shift in the medical tent, that will be the topic of my next front page post as soon as I get some fucking sleep!:P), and I learned that keeping consensus rolling is not nearly as effortless as it appears, and the facilitators we have here have done an excellent job of gently steering us around philosophical tar pits and keeping us actually, you know, making decisions and doing shit. Eugene has a massive and long-standing tradition of activism of this sort; we have a tremendous advantage, as we are beginning with scores of veterans, where other movements are getting rolling with little or no experience with this stuff.

    In fact, while my comrades would probably be horrified, a military analogy is pretty apt here. Our "resistance" here benefits from the presence of dozens of special forces commandos and non-commissioned officers, who are expertly recruiting, training, and leading new troops. Hmm. More thoughts on this later, sleep now. Cheers!