After two days in Chicago, I was convinced that the structural side of the movement’s organization was an ineffective clusterf***. My initial impression at the New York City site confirmed this. Perhaps my expectations were too high; since the site had been around longer and had more participation I assumed some of the kinks had been worked out. This purist, direct-democracy system being followed renders decision-making more complicated than necessary and, oddly enough, foments a fear of hidden leadership, authoritarianism, cliques, and a lack of transparency and accountability.
If this were simply an experiment in direct democracy, it may be quite interesting. As a social movement, which this ostensibly is, the system is an impediment to developing shared ideology or meaningful understanding of our economic conditions. As for any desire to create a strategy and decide on tactics and goals, it is useless. I heard people say that the process is ‘fetishized’ and this is an accurate description. There is currently a proposal that has been passed by the General Assembly (GA) in order to change this system to include a ‘Spokes Council’ which may or may not alleviate some of these problems.
General Assembly is a daily meeting held at Zuccotti Park every evening at 7pm. It is open to all occupiers and the general public. The agenda is set in advance at the Facilitators Group meeting which is held at 4pm every afternoon. Members of working groups can submit proposals to be put on the agenda to be presented to the assembly, discussed, and tested for consensus. There is also time for general announcements like upcoming events, new working groups, etc. At some GA meetings there are ‘breakout group’ sessions to allow for small group discussions and feedback on living documents involving principles, demands, and visions being created by working groups.
The basic structure of the organization has been very open and broad. There are dozens of Working Groups ranging from those handling the day-to-day operations of the park and organization (Finance, Medics, The People’s Kitchen) to outward-looking or events-oriented groups (Direct Action, Education, Labor Outreach). There are groups working on principles or demands of the movement, issue-oriented groups (Alternative Economy, Environmentalist Solidarity, Occupy the SEC) and various cultural and identity affinity groups (Women Occupying Wall Street, People of Color, Students). As I publish this, there are 78 working groups listed on the website, although it is difficult to determine if this list is comprehensive and if all the groups are active.
In the GA system, it seemed on the surface that all of these groups are essentially given equal footing. This is a grand idea, but not a realistic one. There needs to be delineation between types of groups, with those directly involved with the functioning of the community and the advancement of the movement given first priority. There also has to be much better communication from groups to the general population and between the groups. It pains me to use this as an example, as a woman and a feminist, but there were 3 or 4 different groups for female-identified people, and during announcements at my first GA meeting in New York it was clear that at least 2 of them weren’t aware of each others’ existence. I am not sure whether or not their ultimate purposes overlapped or if some of them eventually merged, but the awkward encounter, amplified by the people’s mic in front of hundreds of people, gives the impression that the word ‘organization’ may be an exaggeration.
Working groups set their own meeting schedules and plan events independently. Most meetings are posted on a schedule online, but many participants in the movement have little or no access to the internet, particularly while onsite. There is a chalkboard in the park that is supposed to list the schedule for the day but it was only updated once in the 4 days I saw it. It is difficult to figure out what is happening, when, and where. This certainly limits people’s participation in the groups. Meetings and events are inconsistently announced at the GA meetings. Similar events are scheduled on top of each other. Failure in the simple task of communicating these things accurately and accessibly is inexcusable.
During the GA meetings, there is a process in place to give everyone the opportunity to speak about a proposal or topic, to give their input, ideas, concerns, and ask questions. There is a deliberate effort to use a ‘progressive stack’ in which people from traditionally under-represented groups are given priority to speak. There is a noble intention behind this but many people are still intimidated by speaking to a crowd, particularly if their point is controversial or unpopular. The dominant mentality is very clearly one developed from a point of privilege – a white, bourgeois perspective – and this further alienates those from different backgrounds who, in my experience, often have a much clearer understanding of what is really happening in this world.
One night while I was there, a document was presented by a working group to the assembly concerning ‘visions’. Because the (white, male, wealthy) leader of that working group spoke from a position of authority and confidence, the document was taken very seriously by the assembly. It was a terrible document filled with academic jargon, no context in reality, a vision for some ideal future filled with arrogant assumptions about what is best for the world. Yet we spent close to an hour discussing it in small groups and providing feedback to the assembly. I doubt it will ever be adopted as an official statement of OWS, but it alienated me and I am sure it alienated many others, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is necessary to find a balance between an idealistic direct democracy and the ultimate purpose of this group. Rather than focusing on individuals’ voices there is a need to establish a foundation upon which this movement can determine what this purpose is and how it may be advanced.
A cultural upbringing of hyper-individualism and personal responsibility, along with a general view of politics as a belief system akin to religion rather than a concrete set of policies and ideology, combine to make discussions rather unproductive. The drive to reach consensus and find a common voice results in vague, meaningless concepts. Many people at OWS need to let go of their egos, their ideal visions for the future which are based on myths, and take several steps back. The first step should be a critical, scientific look at what the real economic conditions are and how we got here, as well as an understanding of the history of social movements and how they work. Until there is at least a basic understanding of this, there is no way to move forward.
It would behoove the movement to make a major priority of educating the participants. History, economic theory, real analysis of the political and economic system under which we live, the global nature of our economic system, the history of organized labor and social movements, the connection between the work of OWS and existing social movements elsewhere in the world – these are barely discussed aside from casual conversation. Most people at OWS understand that we have been lied to by our education system, media, and other forms of propaganda throughout our lives, however few seem willing to confront the deep effect this has on how we think and how we see the world. We need teach-ins, workshops and study groups and we need to bring in wise people who have seen much of this before. There are far too many participants who have no idea that there is a history and tradition to movements like this, and that we are not inventing something new. I will discuss this more in a later post but for now a cliché will suffice: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Some changes were made to the GA process recently which may improve the process itself. As of last week, proposals intended for the GA will be announced a day in advance and available for review and feedback online and at the park. This should result in proposals being more precise and reduce the amount of discussion needed at GA about minutiae. It will give people an opportunity to think about proposals rather than being forced to come to conclusions immediately. Additionally, the Spokes Council proposal passed. The original proposal can be seen here. Discussion of the proposal at GA can be read in the minutes available here. It is possible that this system, in concert with the GA, may provide a voice to those who aren’t as comfortable speaking to the large group.
It is unlikely, however, that these changes alone will result in a clearer ideology or understanding of our situation and what can be done about it.